In my preview of the second half of the Knicks’ season, I said the team would have to earn at worst the No. 6 seed in the playoffs to have a viable chance at a first-round series win, and thus a successful year. I even titled the piece “Six or Better” a tongue-in-cheek reference to five-card draw that was nonetheless an accurate description of the team’s second-half goal.
A six-game losing streak in early March that led to the resignation of coach Mike D’Antoni pretty much put the kibosh on the Knicks’ dreams of catching the Magic, Celtics or Hawks for the coveted No. 6 spot (the seventh and eighth seeds in this year’s Eastern Conference playoffs will face the Bulls and Heat in the first round, two teams the Knicks almost certainly can’t beat in a seven-game series). But the team’s dim hopes of catching the Magic for the sixth seed (and drawing the beatable Pacers in the first round) remained alive Sunday thanks to the rarest of occurrences: a strong fourth quarter from both of the Knicks’ stars.
The Knicks rested center Tyson Chandler for Sunday’s matinee in Atlanta against the Hawks, and for three quarters the rest of the team showed why Chandler should cruise to the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award. The Hawks had 93 points through three quarters, and only a remarkable shooting display from New York’s starting five (39-for-70 from the field including 1o-for-13 from three-point range) kept the Knicks in the game.
The fourth quarter brought a playoff-type intensity to the game and a concomitant increase in defensive effort. The Knicks and Hawks combined for 38 fourth-quarter points after scoring 187 in the first three periods. 13 of those points came courtesy of Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, who took turns carrying the team to a 113-112 win.
In just his second game back after missing a month with back problems, Stat scored the Knicks’ first six points of the fourth quarter, overwhelming the Atlanta frontcourt with a dunk and two short-range shots. After he abused Vladimir Radmanovic for a dunk and a righty hook shot on consecutive possessions to open the period, Stat showed some of his old swagger by pantomiming a fork-and-spoon eating gesture — as in “I’m eating these guys up”. Stat’s swag was virtually omnipresent during his scintillating start last season, but since Melo joined the Knicks, Stoudemire has seemed to recede into the background, unsure of his role on what became Melo’s team, then Jeremy Lin’s team, and now Melo’s team again. To see him closer to healthy and taunting the opposition was a welcome change, no matter how bad of a low-post defender Radmanovic is.
Melo missed his first two shots of the quarter and the Knicks found themselves tied with the Hawks with four minutes to play. Then the resurgent superstar took over. A driving layup gave New York a 108-106 lead, and two possessions later Melo went to the rim again, blowing by an overmatched Marvin Williams for an old-fashioned three-point play. Hawks shooting guard Joe Johnson answered with a three to reclaim the lead for Atlanta, 112-111. Unfazed, Melo buried a looong two-pointer (listed on ESPN as a 23-foot jump shot — mind you the three-point line is 23 feet, nine inches from the hoop) to give the Knicks a 113-112 lead with 1:39 to play.
Melo’s shot would be the last points of the game, which came down to the Hawks’ final possession. As the clock ticked towards zero, Williams drove to the hoop and rose up for a dunk. But Stat leapt to bother his shot from the right, while Melo materialized out of nowhere from the left to pressure Williams. The twin defensive efforts from two of the more putrid defenders in the league was just enough — Williams’ dunk attempt did not beat the buzzer and didn’t even go in.
In the end, Stat and Melo combined for 61 points, 22 rebounds and one last-second defensive stand. It wasn’t perfect — Melo was just 14-for-32 from the field while the hot-shooting Stoudemire attempted just 13 shots. But it was the kind of effort the Knicks must have if they want to make noise in the playoffs.
The win moved the Knicks within 2.5 games of the Magic, and when Orlando lost to Denver Sunday night, the lead shrunk to two. In order to secure the No. 6 seed, New York would have to win its last two games (vs. the Clippers, at Charlotte) and Orlando would have to lose its last two (vs. Charlotte, at Memphis). That’s an unlikely scenario, if only because Charlotte is on pace to have the worst season in NBA history — the Bobcats have a 7-55 record and have lost their last 20 games. But thanks to Stat and Melo, the dream of a No. 6 seed lives another day.