A year ago today, the Knicks fell to 22-16 with a loss on the road to Deron Williams and the Utah Jazz. That doesn't matter so much as the score: 131-125. That game featured four Knicks scoring more than 22 points, including Shawne Williams, who was 7-for-8 from 3-point range. (A year later, the roster is so different that looking at the box score is almost wistful. Aw, Raymond Felton. Roger Mason. Wilson Chandler. Ronny Turiaf. Those were the days.) That team was what the Knicks thought they were getting when Mike D'Antoni came to town: high-scoring, seven-seconds-or-less craziness. And when allegedly defense-deficient Carmelo Anthony came to town, it was supposedly even more evident: The Knicks' defense would be lousy, but they could score. And yet, here we are, with the Knicks on a four-game winning streak ... because they're playing absolutely terrific defense.
The Knicks beat the 76ers 85-79 at the Garden last night, ending Philadelphia's six-game winning streak and giving the MSG home crowd the most they've had to cheer about since Christmas Day. Carmelo Anthony scored 27 points and Ama're Stoudemire had 20, but the real kick of the night was the Knicks' defense, which was terrific, holding the 76ers to 39 percent shooting and their lowest point total all season. (By far: Coming in, they hadn't scored fewer than 96 and had just put 112 on Sacramento.) The 85 points were the fewest the Knicks had scored in a win in more than four years. Is it 1994 again? Let's all listen to Weezer's Blue album!
The keys to the defensive prowess, particularly early on, were the rookies, Iman Shumpert and Josh Harrellson. Say all you will about the Knicks' superstar big three, but it can't be overstated how much the Knicks have gotten out of the draft the last two years, especially considering they had one mid-level first-round pick and three second-round picks. Shumpert, Harrellson and Landry Fields aren't just rotation regulars, they're vital contributors. Shumpert, in particular, is becoming the unlikely heart and soul of this team; his defensive intensity changes the whole tenor of what the Knicks are doing. He can't and shouldn't shoot 3-pointers, but that's okay, because you can just leave that to Harrellson, who, as Seth pointed out Tuesday, desperately needs a distinguishing characteristic to make him a legend. Seth suggested antlers, but a Dwayne Schintzius mullet would work just fine, too. Anyway, he was hitting the open shots last night and generally knocking everything down and around in his signature plodding fashion. It ain't pretty, but it works. (Also: The MSG Jumbotron is now openly displaying "JORTS!" every time Harrellson makes a basket. It's gone mainstream!)
It is still strange to see a Mike D'Antoni offense struggle so much, particularly in the fourth quarter, which ended with the Knicks not making a field goal for the last nine minutes. (They also had eleven turnovers in the quarter.) The Sixers, on the last day of a back-to-back-to-back (which, we'll remind you, is a physical impossibility; somewhere, there must be a front), were too worn down to take advantage of it. The Knicks are still figuring out their offense, though, with Stoudemire and Anthony and (eventually) Baron Davis, you have to think they'll get there eventually. (Or D'Antoni will die trying.) But with their defense playing this well, especially with Shumpert wreaking havoc on that end, you can see the beginning of something here. Last night the Knicks won ugly, sort of like they have all year. If they remember how they won ugly when they end up winning pretty, it'll make a big difference come playoff time.
Tonight, the Knicks travel to Memphis to play the struggling Grizzlies, who are without former Knick Zach Randolph. A win would be pleasant, considering the scary Thunder and Magic loom. Theoretically, the Knicks should be able to play a little faster and looser tonight. But, worst case scenario, last night proved, at least to D'Antoni, that "23 Seconds Or Less" can work too.