Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. The Defending Western Conference Champion Oklahoma City Thunder versus a finally-good New York Knicks team. National television. An injured Carmelo Anthony missed the game, but that would only add more intrigue if the Knicks managed a respectable performance. In addition, Amar’e Stoudemire came off the bench to start the game in favor of ancient forward Kurt Thomas.
For all the wonderful moments and intriguing story-lines, not to mention the razor thin final margin, this tilt was ragged, muddled, and disorganized. Watching the Knicks and their lumbering, aging roster slog up and down the court was painful at times, but the Thunder played just haphazardly enough to allow the Knicks to hang around for pretty much the entire game.
The first quarter was sloppy, with Kendrick Perkins isolations and Raymond Felton running the point…well, you really can’t expect much. The Thunder hit their stride and took a 14-13 lead right at the midway point of the quarter, going on a 16-0 run that eventually put them ahead by a 23-13 score with about four minutes remaining. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were both active for the Thunder, and the slower Knicks backcourt was not able to contest the Thunder at the top of the key.
The Knicks attempted to use 10-day contract signee Kenyon Martin, in just his second game played this season, to guard the NBA’s leading scorer in Durant. He fared about how one might expect, eventually fouling out in the fourth quarter, and Durant helped the Thunder take a 35-26 lead into the second quarter.
Neither started the third quarter well, either, and the flow of the game ground to a halt. Stoudemire, after starting the game on the bench, struggled mightily in his matchup with Serge Ibaka, and the rest of the Knicks failed to get anything started. Eventually, New York was able to go on an 11-2 run and tie the game with just over three minutes remaining in the half. Ultimately, the Thunder took a 59-56 lead into the break, but the Knicks had to feel very good about where they stood considering their early game difficulties.
The start of the third quarter was even uglier than the first two, forcing Knicks’ coach Mike Woodson to bring J.R. Smith into the game with just four minutes gone by in the half. Smith had scored 18 points in the second quarter alone, compared to 12 points scored by the rest of his teammates combined. He did not disappoint in the third quarter, either, hitting his first shot and leading a charge to give the Knicks the lead midway through the period. Of course, Smith was only setting the stage for his attempt at being the hero down the stretch in the fourth quarter.
Stoudemire continued to have great difficulty with Ibaka, starting the half by missing his first five shots, which were mostly point-blank attempts either altered or blocked by the Thunder big man. The Knicks eventually pulled ahead by the score of 71-69 with four minutes left in the third, and were able to take an 81-75 lead into the fourth quarter after outscoring Oklahoma City 25-16 in the third.
The fourth quarter was a mostly back-and-forth affair, with both teams trading one point leads over the final four minutes. Eventually, the Knicks called a timeout in possession of the ball with 38.6 seconds left, trailing 95-94. Woodson called a play that used sharpshooter Steve Novak as a decoy, sending J.R. Smith off of a pin-down screen on the left wing. He misfired on a long three-pointer, with the Thunder corralling the rebound. After a timeout and a missed Durant jumper, the Knicks had another chance with 7.9 seconds left following another timeout.
I could spend all day griping about hero ball. It’s never a good idea, really. But I would contend that Kobe Bryant Hero Ball or Kevin Durant Hero Ball is slightly different than J. R. Smith Hero Ball. Yes, he scored a season-high 36 points, and kept the Knicks afloat for much of the game. But….he’s still J.R. Smith, and the Knicks failed to run any semblance of offense on the play. There was no movement. No screens were set. Just Smith catching the ball outside the arc with his back to the basket. He didn’t even make a move towards the basket until there were under four seconds remaining.
Smith took two hard dribbles and a jab step to his right before faking and fading, a la Kevin Garnett, from just inside the three-point line. He missed, and it was not particularly close. Worst of all, there was no time for the Knicks to rebound the ball and try again. It was as if they did not realize they were losing, but the score was definitely 95-94 in favor of the Thunder. It made no sense, and I refuse to believe that Mike Woodson called for a J. R. Smith isolation and told him to not shoot until the buzzer. That didn’t happen, right?
A few thoughts….
- Watching Raymond Felton attempt to “run” an offense is painful. He lost control of the ball more than a few times, leading to a couple of early turnovers and easy Thunder shot attempts in the open floor. He also shot a couple of long two-pointers early in the shot clock, and just could not handle Westbrook on the other end of the floor.
- Let me rephrase this…watching the Knicks’ offense in general was pretty rough. Too much isolation. I mean, I don’t like Melo-isos a whole lot, and he’s probably the best in the game in straight isolation plays. But watching Stoudemire try to get around Ibaka, Smith jack up long fadeaways from all over the place, and Felton just being…Felton? Not fun.
- Other than a stretch in the middle of the first quarter, the Thunder offense was not much better. They fall back on Durant isolations too much, when their offense works best with Westbrook getting into the lane and either scoring/drawing a foul himself or dishing to an open shooter (often Durant) on the perimeter. Oklahoma City isos Durant high on the wings an awful lot, and as good as he is, it seems to be a waste of the Thunder’s overall offense talent.
- Neither Durant nor Westbrook shot very well, combining for 17 of 42 from the floor and turning the ball over 12 times total. They did shoot a combined 18 of 21 from the free throw line, however.
- Save for an explosive dunk midway through the third quarter, it’s almost painful to watch Amar’e Stoudemire play at this point in his career. You have to feel bad for the guy, but matching up against the young, bouncy Ibaka was a nightmare. Amar’e shot just 5 of 16 for the game, finishing with 16 points and 8 rebounds.
- J.R. Smith scored a season-high 36 points on 14 of 29 shooting (6 of 13 from long range). His 29 field goal attempts tied a career-high. He also only shot 2 of 2 from the charity stripe. You know, because he only shot long jumpers. Like the long fadeaway to lose the game. When he had the whole side of the floor to work with, but he shot a contested fallaway jumper anyways. Yep, that’s the J.R. Smith that Knicks fans know and (sometimes) love.