Knicks 102, Hawks 90

[Ed’s note: My apologies to Jim, for not seeing this sooner.]

The game right before the All-Star break can be a wildcard. Some teams use it as momentum for the home stretch, while others look at is as no more than a glorified practice, essentially taking an extra night off.

While the Hawks were more than obliged to play the latter role, the Knicks looked eager to exorcise the bewildering demons of the teams’ first two match ups – both disappointing, low-energy losses – and capitalized on the Hawks’ obvious disinterestedness en route to a 102-90 win which saw New York net a TS% of 57%.

After three days of no games, ever-heightening Melo Drama, and with a sizable rest right around the corner, no one was quite sure which brand of Knicks would show up tonight. Would it be the team which, lacking their hobbled leader and co-Captain, eeked out an ugly-but-gutsy win against the Nets on Saturday? Or would it be the motley crew that hadn’t shot over 50% from the field in the six games prior, while allowing their opponents to break that threshold five times in the same span?

In the end, it was neither. Instead, what we got was a Knicks team both fired up and honed-in turning in a performance not seen since they dismantled the Spurs on January 4th. The result was an impressive, encouraging, and consistent (they very nearly scored 26 EVERY quarter) effort that saw five players score in double figures, lead most effectively by a seemingly rejuvenated Wilson Chandler’s 20 on 15 shots (including one reverse alley-oop from Felton which, if you’re honest with yourself, had you too thinking twice about including him so readily in a package for Melo).

While neither had spectacular games shooting, both Stoudemire (23 on 17 shots) and Felton (13 on 16 shots) contributed in other ways, with Stat recording three blocks and Felton dishing 11 dimes with 2 steals and a block of his own. Amar’e in particular didn’t seem fazed much by his sprained toe, which bodes well for him starting Sunday’s All Star game. Meanwhile everyone’s favorite Fields chipped in a vintage (that’s right, he’s that cool) 11 points on 5 shots (including 2 angry treys right in a pesky Mike Bibby’s grill) with 9 rebounds (all defensive), 5 assists and 2 steals.

But perhaps the most impressive – or at least nerve-calming – performance came from Gallo, who looked explosive early, even when his first few outside shots went amiss. He ended the night with 17 on 12 shots (3-8 from downtown, 4 for 4 from the line), along with 9 rebounds. He also did a more-than-serviceable job on Joe Johnson, making him work for many of his 11 points (on 12, mostly contested shots).

The first quarter started off like a game of swamp volleyball, with the two teams combining to go 9/25 from the floor.  However, after an Atlanta timeout (taken while they were ahead), the Knicks came out in a much better rhythm, scoring the next 9 points en route to a 26-19 lead at the end of the first.

The Hawks began the game getting what they wanted in the paint. But the Bockers buckled down, forcing the Hawks into deeper, largely contested jump shots. And though the Hawks ended up shooting an eFG% of 52% (including 11-22 from three), their inability to get to the free throw line resulted in a 12 point differential at the stripe –the exact difference in the game – as the Knicks went 17-21 compared to the Hawks’ 5-9.

Other than Bibby (15 on 8 shots, including 5 threes and no FTs), Horford (a very quiet 12 on 6 shots, also no FTs), and Marvin (if that’s your first name, you don’t need a last… he had 17 on 14 shots, and only 2FTs), the Hawks were pretty much in third gear for most of the game, never finding a coherent rhythm and deferring too often to the kind of isolation basketball they’ve supposedly grown out of. Meanwhile the Knicks did their part to limit the Hawks’ possessions, outrebounding Atlanta 44-38 and pushing the tempo to the tune of 18 fast break points.

Though helped in part by Atlanta’s malaise, for the second game in a row the Knicks played impressive D, holding Atlanta mostly in check while tallying as many blocks as steals (7). The second unit in particular showed a defensive tenacity that could become their hallmark down the home stretch, helping close out an impressive half that ended with the Knicks up 13.

The Hawks never got closer than 7 in what was a mostly pedestrian second half, punctuated by multiple dagger-ettes from Fields, Gallo, and Felton.

Unfortunately, Round 2 of Williams v. Williams was not to be. Although things started getting a little testy towards the end, with Horford and Felton – of all people – going jaw to jaw for a moment before the cooler heads of Stoudemire and Josh Smith – of all people – stepped in to keep things in check. On a bizarre NBA night that saw the Cavaliers beat the Lakers and both the Celtics and Heat struggle with far inferior opponents, Al Horford did his best Amar’e Stoudemire impression, racking up a technical and generally imparting a Stoudemire-of-six-years-ago demeanor that made it easy for Stat to come out of this week’s bulletin back-and-forth victorious.

And now on to a much needed All-Star Break which arrives with as many questions as it does potential thrills. Will Stat suit up? Will Blake Superior literally throw his entire body, and the ball, through the rim? Will this be the greatest All-Star Game ever? Will we be any closer next Monday to a closing of the Melo Drama than we are today? Is Stephen A. Smith really that bitter?

Whatever the answers to these questions, the now 28-26 Knicks can know one thing for sure: they’re the first to be over .500 at the All-Star break since the Bockers of 2000-01. Back when the only Felton we knew was Felton Spencer.