As with a fellow rite of spring, jockeying has once again become an important factor in the NBA’s regular season home stretch.
With just three games remaining entering Sunday’s series finale against the Pacers, the Knicks were playing close attention to the top of the standings, where Miami’s convincing afternoon win over a floundering Boston put them in sole possession of the second seed.
Conventional wisdom had it that the Knicks would prefer to play the Heat, against whom they’ve won the last two. But Boston’s noticeable late season limps might be enough to convince the Bockers to hold steady in the six spot.
The Pacers, on the other hand, were one of four Eastern Conference teams (the Magic, Hawks and Bulls being the other three) whose postseason positions had already been sealed. Which begged the question: how hard would Frank Vogel run his starting steeds Sunday night?
Not quite hard enough, as it turns out.
Carmelo Anthony hit his second game-winner in a Knick uniform, capping off a 110-109 win in which he scored a game high 34, including six three pointers.
More importantly, he came up with a stifling, well-timed block on Danny Granger’s last second jumper – almost the same shot, incidentally, that Granger had hit over Shawne Williams to give the Pacers a 117-115 victory back in March.
Most importantly, with that one sensational sequence, New York’s prodigal hero helped secure the Knicks’ first winning season in 10 years, while putting them within one win (or a Sixers loss) of securing the sixth seed outright.
With Amare Stoudemire sidelined for the second consecutive game with a mild ankle sprain, Anthony was once again the focus of the offense. And though his efficiency wasn’t quite what it’s been during much of the team’s 7 game winning streak (11-28 and a TS% of just under 54%), all eight of his fourth quarter points were key to keeping the Knicks within striking distance.
Chauncey Billups added 21 (11 of them from the free throw line – the only place he found some semblance of consistency), while Toney Douglas turned in another solid performance off the bench, banking 14 on 10 shots.
Though sporadic, the Knick ‘D’ was at times tenacious. They turned 5 first-half steals (which accounted for all of Indy’s TOs in that span) into 13 points, helping build a 69-61 lead at the break. Later, the Bockers were able to recover from a horrendous third quarter in which they shot just 4/20 and were outscored 35-20 by holding Indiana to just 13 points in the final frame.
But perhaps most impressively, they held the Pacers scoreless for the final 3:31 of regulation – one of the longest and most noticeably inspired stretches of the season.
At this point, the Knicks know three things: (1) they’ll be playing late into April for the first time in seven years; (2) they finish the season against Chicago (at home on Tuesday) and Boston (in Beantown Wednesday); and (3) a win over either (or a Philly loss) would keep them where they are in terms of seeding.
Where the team plane lands Friday, however, remains anyone’s guess.