Stop me if you've heard this before. Last night, the Knicks fell way behind in the first half because they were bullied at the rim and on the glass by a bigger team. A spirited second half comeback was anchored by improved three-point shooting but came just short when the opposition made big, back-breaking jumpers down the stretch. If that sounds familiar, then you're onto something (but why didn't you stop me?). The Knicks' 112–103 loss to the Orlando Magic last night was eerily similar to their previous defeat in Miami: A lack of size dug them into a hole, and a second half offensive renaissance nearly pulled them out of it.
The Amar'e Stoudemire–Dwight Howard battle was physical from the tip. Stoudemire, with a little help from his friends, did a superb job of frustrating Howard at the basket, pestering his post moves and even blocking a few of his attempts. On the other end, Howard dared his man to shoot, and Amar'e — usually deadly from mid-range — mostly couldn't convert. The two hacked each other quite a bit, and both were hit with technical fouls for mouthing off within earshot of the refs. (Dwight and Amar'e are first and second, respectively, in techs this season). The game's turning point came when Stoudemire picked up his second and third fouls in a matter of seconds and was forced to take a seat for the final six minutes of the first half. With the gargantuan Howard still on the floor, Mike D'Antoni chose to get silly and play a lineup of Raymond Felton, Landry Fields, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Shawne Williams — essentially a point guard and four guard-forwards. The idea was to cover for a lack of size on defense with shooting on the other end, but that unit was colder and sloppier than week-old slush, which is noted for being exceedingly cold and sloppy. Howard and Brandon Bass trampled D'Antoni's dwarf horde while the Magic bench got hot from outside, and the Knicks just couldn't keep pace. In what felt like moments, a game that had once seen the Knicks up ten was getting all kinds of Magical. D'Antoni curiously opted to leave Ronny Turiaf (just six minutes) and Timofey Mozgov (DNP-CD) on the shelf while his small lineup wilted at Howard's feet. New York trailed by eighteen at the half.
In the second half, Stoudemire returned with a vengeance, using an array of moves and superior touch to score around Howard and company. He got a big help from Wilson Chandler, whose season-high 29 points were a fitting end to a very solid December. Ultimately, though, a 51–35 rebounding disadvantage and little support from the slumping Raymond Felton (6–22, fourteen points) and fading Danilo Gallinari (2–5 for ten points, but he did get to the line a bit and make some silly faces) were too much for Amar'e, Wil, and the Knicks to overcome. They cut what had been a 22-point deficit to as little as two but couldn't summon a final run when the Magic sprinted ahead once more.
You can give the Knicks credit for holding Howard to 8–19 shooting and, just like the Miami game, you've got to applaud their fight in the second half. It's maddening, though, to see them fail to figure things out until they're already too far behind. If New York could just string together four straight quarters of competent ball, they'd be perfectly capable of upsetting these top-tier teams. Alas, they haven't reached that point. They came close twice but left Florida with nothing but a sunburn and the chorus to "It's a Small World" stuck in their heads. The Knicks enter 2011 at 18–14 (their best mark at that point in nearly a decade) and will ring in the New Year with a pair of home games against the Pacers and Spurs before they head west for a Pacific road trip. The schedule doesn't get any easier in January, so they'll need to figure some things out if they wish to stay above .500 (and they probably do).