The Knicks' loss to Portland on New Year's Day was so discouraging — particularly coming on the heels of some other games with tons of defensive lapses — that you had to start wondering if the Knicks were about to be devoured by the regression machine, that the defense was gonna be this bad all year. (People a lot smarter than we are were worried about their defense, too.) The San Antonio Spurs' visit to town last night, with their hyperefficient offense and their seven-game winning streak, seemed like the worst possible opponent at the worst possible time. So of course the Knicks played some of their best defense of the year and blew them away. Silly Knicks.
The Knicks ended up winning 100–83 with a nice finishing kick, and the key was a defensive prowess Knicks fans hadn't seen in a couple of weeks, at least. They hounded the Spurs, both in the lane and on the perimeter, forcing the Spurs into an ugly 9-for-34 from three-point range. The narrative today is that the Knicks finally started listening to their coach again, but the real answer might have been good first-quarter defense; in losses to Portland and Sacramento, the Knicks played so poorly early on that they spent the rest of the game trying to catch up. Last night, they were tough from the beginning, allowing for the nice pullaway at the end, thanks in large part to three Steve Novak three-pointers.
Let's see, what else happened ... Carmelo Anthony scored 23 points ... Stephen Jackson sprained his ankle because Mayor Bloomberg wanted a beverage ... Pablo Prigioni had a pleasant game with nine assists ... oh, jeez, we can't fight it any longer, let's just watch that J.R. Smith dunk again.
To paraphrase the kids today, ZOMG! So it's absolutely amazing that a person is able to do that. Smith scored twenty points off the bench — the fifth game in a row he's done that, by the way — but none will be more memorable than that one: There might not be a more memorable play all season. It's one of those plays that GIFs can't do justice; their herky-jerky nature betrays just how athletic a play that is. (You assume a frame must have been skipped.) Smith has made fewer boneheaded plays this year, is playing fiercer defense, and has even filled in at point guard (effectively) from time to time. Smith is making $2.8 million this year ... a third of what Mark Sanchez will make next season. He is the greatest deal in New York sports. He's probably worth it all just for that play. (We love how it makes the Knicks' bench essentially burst into flames.)
Amar'e Stoudemire slowly lurched himself toward game speed, scoring ten points, though it's obvious at this point that it's a little late to "start" teaching him defense. But the Knicks won this game because of everyone else's defense, and for all the doom and gloom after the last fortnight, it was a relief to see they can still turn it on when they need to against a quality (albeit tired) opponent. They won't play another Western Conference opponent until February 2, so they can start putting some real distance between them and the rest of the Eastern Conference right now. If they can keep playing defense like they did last night, they'll will. After last night, we know that they still can.