The Melozoic Era: 11 games in

Over the last three weeks, one word more than any other has peppered the KnickerBlogger forums and defined much of its discourse: gel. More specifically, how long would it take for the new-look Knicks to do just that? Some said 5 games. Others said we could do little more than wait ‘til next season – when we’d have a playoff round or two and a full training camp with a new draft pick under our belts (coughKembaWalkerPleaseGetaDUIcough) – to get a truly accurate picture.

I said 10 games. Why? I’d love to say there was some precedent-guided rationale. But there wasn’t. It was completely arbitrary. Or so it seemed at the time. Unfortunately, I somehow lost the ability to count to 10. Thus,  Melo: 10 games in has become, instead, Melo: 11 games in. Hey, at least it’s symmetrical.

After Sunday’s horrifying and sloptastic 106-93 home loss to the Pacers – the 11th game in the Melozoic era – what once seemed a wholly flippant benchmark suddenly took on new weight. Indeed, the Mighty we’d witnessed freeze Cryami with tenacious down-the-stretch defense and timely, disciplined baskets had fallen, and fallen hard. That night in South Beach, the memory was of Stat swooping across the lane like a crazed Pterodactyl, sending LeBron’s attempted shot ricocheting gloriously off the glass in what was, up to that point, the new unit’s defining moment.

Last night, it was the perpetually overachieving and wily Tyler Hansbrough wreaking havoc on the Knicks’ interior D. In so doing, he became just the latest in a growing litany of – how do I put this – “talent-neutral” players to perform as if James Dolan himself had foreclosed on his family’s farm. Without franchise keystone Danny Granger, the Pacers – whom the Knicks shockingly outrebounded 44-33 – seemed to score at will en route to a matadorian 65% TS% that managed to pull a fairly audible chorus of boos from the otherwise subdued Garden crowd. This, after confident proclamations in outlets abound about the Knicks’ potential for upsetting top flight teams like Chicago and Miami in a best of seven series? Are we talking about the same team?

Like that of the hair variety, The Bockers’ new “gel” feels pretty sticky. The troubling loss put the Knicks at 1-3 against teams below .500 since the trade, and 5-2 against teams above it. To call that schizophrenic really wouldn’t be much of a stretch: the team’s entire mood and demeanor seems to swing solely on the reputation of the competition at hand. They seem to pick it up for the good teams (Dallas non withstanding), and totally lay it downs at the feet of the dregs.

Strangely enough, however, when it comes to Anthony himself, what we’ve seen throughout the year – and throughout his career – is largely been what we’ve gotten (with some notable exceptions). From PER to shooting percentage to turnovers, Anthony has basically stuck to his own mean since arriving in Manhattan.

Hardcore supporters of the trade and certifiable Melomaniacs could be forgiven for hoping that the Knicks’ overall performance would mimic that of their newly-acquired star.  That would fit the hero narrative, after all. But that hasn’t been the case. In the 5 losses since Melo’s late February acquisition, he’s netted a TS% of 53%. In their 6 wins? 56%. For his first 11 games in New york, Melo continues to hover around both his career and pre-Knick season % at a just shade over 54%. Even his usage rate has held steady (29.0 before the trade; 29.2 after).

Melo’s largest deviations have come with respect to 3 pointers (42% and nearly one more attempt per game with the Knicks vs. 33% with the Nuggets), rebounds (7.5 per 36 for the year vs. 6.5 per 36 since the trade) and assists (3.0 overall and 3.6 per 36 since the trade). Looking at his shooting, Melo is basically taking one more 3 point attempt per game, and that’s it (19.3 shot attempts per game pre-trade to 20 per game post-trade). Explanations for the rebounding drop, on the other hand, aren’t so readily apparent. However, the disparity might be explained by Melo’s reduced oreb per 36, which have fallen slightly since his arrival.

Understanding his prowess for put-backs after attempts at the rim, combined with his shooting more 3s, Melo appears to be taking more jump shots since his arrival than before, relying less on the “bully ball” that even he claimed was unsustainable. Of course, I didn’t watch all the game film from his 50 some-odd Denver games, so this last part is pure speculation. But something to consider.

For whatever can’t be found in terms of drastic changes in stats, in terms of style, there has certainly been a qualitatively different look and feel about the Knicks since Melo’s arrival. A “swag”, if you will. The pace has slowed, both statistically and viscerally. Before the trade, Stoudemire was typically the only iso-worthy player on the floor. Now the Knicks have two certifiable go-to guys, which has paid dividends down the stretch twice already (Melo channeling LeBron into Stat’s help D against Miami, and Melo canning the game winner in Memphis), but has also lead to more-ball stopping possessions and arguably more ill-advised shots.

Obviously, the biggest X-factor in this entire equation has been Billups – or the lack thereof. After missing 6 games with a deep thigh bruise, Mr. Big Shot may have been the only Knick player sweating Sunday night, looking noticeably winded and not quite up to game snuff. Hopefully, given a few more games of putting his lungs and legs back through the gauntlet, Billups will pick up where he left off before the injury, when his poise and presence was perhaps doing more than anything to keep the Knicks in the game.

When you consider that Melo has played more games in a Knick uniform with Toney Douglas as the starter (six) than with Chauncey leading the charge (five), that lack of PG continuity becomes perhaps the single most legitimate case for holding out judgment until further down the road.

In short: it seems as if they’re still very much figuring out how to play together. But here’s the thing: perhaps everyone is. It doesn’t matter if you’re the ’70 Knicks, the ’05 Pistons or the 2011 Cavaliers: teams are always figuring out how to play together. Some teams just have it figured out more often, and can do it for longer stretches.

Without sounding too meta, maybe the Knicks are still figuring out how to figure it out. But they’ve definitely shown glimpses of a team who, if they were to truly get it together, could very well become a force far sooner than most of us had hoped. That is, of course, assuming Hyde is left at home. For now, it’s probably safe to assume that dangerous and confounding will continue to define the Knicks in equal fashion and measure for the foreseeable future.

Mavs 127, Knicks 109

If Wednesday night’s Melo-dramatic last-second win was the euphoric party, Thursday’s Knickerblogger exchange was like the hangover: full of grumblings, confusion, and vague regret. Even after Carmelo Anthony’s first defining moment as a Knick helped deliver a gutsy win over the scrappy Grizzlies, skeptics preached patience and tempered expectations for what is – at the end of the day – still just the beginning of a lengthy evaluation process.

Let’s see what they do tomorrow night, against a certifiably elite opponent, they seemed to say.

A fair request, no doubt.

So how did they do?

For anyone who watched the Grizzlies game but couldn’t justify Thursday’s late-nighter, here’s the simplest way to describe what happened, emotionally: take the last two minutes of the Memphis game, multiply it by 24, and you get something approximating what went down at American Airlines Arena (minus a few steals)

Like the Knicks, the Mavericks were coming off a hard-fought slog the night previous – a 2 point loss to New Orleans which prompted Rick Carlisle to label his soldiers “soft”.

Wethinks they got the message.

On a night where  both teams were playing their 4th game in 5 days, the only thing “soft” was the touch of the Dallas jumpers, as the Mavs amassed a crippling TS% of 60%, including 11 of 24 from downtown. The resulting 127-109 thrashing brought the Knicks overall record to 34-30 – and 0-3 in the Melo Era against teams whose names end in “a-v-s”.

While the no doubt tired Mavericks used the juice of the home crowd to fuel their twine-tickling effort, the Bockers shot a forgettable 46% eFG%, getting routinely out-hustled for loose balls and long rebounds, and generally showing the predictable malaise of a team playing its 7th game in 10 nights.

Like last month’s equally lopsided affair, the Knicks struggled to keep the Mavs off the glass. And though the actual rebounding disparity – 45 to 37 – looks on its face like Knicks standard-issue, it seemed as if every offensive rebound came at a the most inopportune time. Shawne Marion in particular wreaked havoc in this department, reeling in 6 OREBs on a night when The Matrix seemed to tap into his 2004 Fantasy Monster form, scoring 22 points and generally bewildering the Knicks front line all night long.

For the sixth consecutive game, Toney Douglas started in place of Chauncey Billups, who continues to recover from Dwight Howard’s kneecap shrapnel. Fresh off an efficient (minus the shaky last couple minutes) 18 points and 10 assists the night before, Douglas played admirably opposite the confounding Cerberus of Jason Kidd and J.J. Barea, netting 18 and 8 with a 58% TS%, while committing no turnovers.

During Billips’ absence, TD has averaged 16.5 points and 7 assists with an EFG% of 66%. And though he’s provided his fair share of TDDWTDDs, Douglas seems to have put the woes of midseason squarely in the rear view mirror — at least for now.

Landry Fields continued his recent stellar play, banking 19 with 6 rebounds, 4 steals, and a certifiably Landrarian 82% TS%. Like Douglas, Fields’ last 5 games have been marked by a quietly impressive efficiency, and have seen the precocious neophyte rack up averages of 14.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and a rotund 75% TS%.

Amare Stoudemire had a hologram game (shiny, sparkly, not much there) that was as labored as it was inefficient, scoring 36 on 27 shots with a team low -23 for the night. Stat also managed to pick up his 16th technical foul of the season, which, if it’s not rescinded, means the Knicks will be sans his services for Sunday’s showdown with the Pacers.

Carmelo Anthony, meanwhile, didn’t provide much in the way of an encore to Wednesday’s stellar play, scoring 18 on 15 shots (although he did chip in 10 rebounds and 5 assists), as the omnipresent Marion succeeded in keeping Melo at bay for most of the game.

Down by as many as 26 in the second half, the Knicks staged a heart-felt comeback towards the end of the third, cutting the deficit to 11 early in the fourth. But the Mavs kept them at bay down the stretch, sending the Knicks home with a 1-1 split on their mini road trip.

The truly brutal March schedule in full swing, the Knicks might need to siphon the lingering energy from Saturday’s Big East finale before the Garden half of their home-and-home with the Pacers on Sunday. But with 3 sets of back-to-backs remaining before the month’s end, even these two much-needed days’ rest will probably seem like far too few for this understandably weary bunch.

Knicks 107, Hornets 88

Before Tuesday night’s 116-110 loss to the Magic, many of us were looking forward to Wednesday’s date with Chris Paul and the Hornets as a meaty matchup between Knick Point Guards present and – some would hope – future.  But with Chauncey Billups out of action with a bruised left quad, all eyes instead were on Toney Douglas. And what spicy buffalo eyes they were.

TD was hotter than the fire he’d been thrown into, hitting his first 4 shots – including a pair of 3s – generally making good decisions, and keeping CP3 largely in check in helping guide the NYK to a 107-88 win.

Douglas made the most of his second start of the season, tallying 24 points (including 4 from distance) on a truly filthy 94% eFG%, to go along with 4 rebounds and 5 assists. Meanwhile, CP3’s recent shooting woes – which included a 3-10 outing against the lowly Raptors the night before – continued in the Garden, as Paul finished with just 4 points on 2-7 shooting (although he did tally 10 assists).

For what seemed like the first time all year, the Knicks played another team on a back-to-back that looked more gassed than they were. With TD setting the tone, the Knicks netted a combined eFG% of 61% (including a refreshing 13/20 from downtown), as all five starters dished at least 4 assists. The Knicks took advantage of the Hornets’ palpable fatigue, attacking their front line inside early and restraining themselves to just 7 three point attempts in the first half, all the while moving the ball around with a crispness seldom seen in recent games.

And when New Orleans started collapsing in the second half, Shawne Williams made them pay, connecting on all four of his 3PT attempts in the final two frames. Extra E ended the night with a downright centennial 100% eFG% (6/8 with 4 threes). Perspective: he had been 4 for his last 23 from beyond the arc.

If tonight’s game was a bracing shot in the arm for Douglas and Extra E, it was at least a gentle waking nudge for Carmelo Anthony. In his second home game in the Garden, Melo had a slightly-better-than-typical-so-far outing, finishing with 22 on 18 shots with 4 rebounds, 4 assists, a Carmelo-y 53% TS%, and a healthy +16. Meanwhile the other arm of the law, Amar’e Stoudemire, finished with a sporadically dominating 24 on 19 shots for a wholesome and Amar’e-e 58% TS%.

Contributing to their outwardly pedestrian efficiency, both Stat and Melo struggled somewhat from the charity stripe, going a combined 10 for 16. Still, neither of the two forced the issue, and Melo in particular largely refrained from his beloved outside jumpers until late, choosing instead to attack the basket early.

Meanwhile, the recently slump-plagued Fields still managed to find ways to contribute, scoring 10 points with 3 rebounds, 4 assists, and one sigh-inducing second half triple that helped spark a Knicks run. Anthony Carter logged 18 feisty, heavy minutes spelling TD,  nabbing 7 rebounds and displaying his pesky brand of D. (Carter also scored 2 points, which means I lost my bet that Chris Paul’s knee brace would tally more blocks than Carter did points.)

Without their recently conscripted general, the Bocker’s proved they could handle a half-course slugfest against a solid – though clearly tired – defensive team. And while the Knicks actually had more turnovers (16 to the Hornets’ 14), New Orleans never found themselves in a fluid enough rhythm – or shooting well enough (just a 49% eFG%, including 3 of 14 from deep) – to capitalize.

But even better than how the unexpected starting 5 played, was the 5 on the court at closing time. Yes folks, Air Mason, She-Will, Jeffrightened (so stunning was his entry, apparently, that ESPN didn’t even have him in the box score until the 4th quarter), TDDWTDD and… NewlyAcquiredFromCharlotteSixEightSwingmanDerrickBrown… all got to bring us to the final horn. Mason in particular was heavily deluged in chant from an otherwise subdued crowd (The FreeMasons?  You can thank Robert for that one). The vibes worked, as Roger hit two long range jumpers to net perhaps his most rewarding 5 points in years.

And so it was that a night which many worried would turn into a Garden audition for Chris Paul morphed, instead, into a confidence-building 48 minutes for a number of Knicks. But with Billups questionable for Friday’s revenge-fest with Cleveland, Douglas in particular should be looking to turn tonight’s poised play into actual momentum for the home stretch. And maybe – if we’re really lucky – the future.

Some games matter: 5 key matchups for the home stretch

I was already well into writing this mid-season missive when word of the Melo deal became all but official. Which, in a way, is appropriate: it seems as though no writer, blogger, or player has been able to do his job this year without constantly being confronted with the about-faces and game-changers which made the Melodrama the unprecedented media circus that it was. But regardless of the squad we cheer out of the tunnel on Tuesday, our Bockers face a tough home stretch, as the race for the final three playoff spots gets tighter in a much improved East.

The Knicks entered the break at 28-26; good for 6th in the conference, though only 2 games ahead of Philly and 4 ahead of current 8th seed Indiana. With what is looking like basically a brand new team, it’s difficult to hypothesize how the Knicks come out of the gate. Still, we can at least take marginal comfort in the fact that Philly (SOS of .543) and 9th seed Charlotte (.513) have the 1st and 3rd hardest schedule in the Eastern Conference, respectively. The Pacers (.443) and 10th seed Milwaukee, however, boast the 2nd and 4th easiest schedules in the Conference going forward, while the Knicks stand in 6th, with an SOS of .466.

So we shouldn’t worry about a fresh-faced Knicks squad being thrown into the kind of hellish stretch that occupied much of December and January’s schedule, which should help make what will no doubt be a quick on-the-job-gelling a little easier. That said, Philly, Charlotte, Milwaukee and Indiana are all scrappy and talented enough to make us heed the rearview mirror’s wisdom: all objects are much, much closer than they appear.

So with that, let’s take a look at 5 key games in the home stretch and what each of them mean for our springtime dash to the postseason:

February 23rd – vs. Milwaukee:

“Ouch. Not much to say about this one.”

Such was the opening salvo for the recap of this disaster, played November 9th in Milwaukee. Some will remember this as the game Milwaukee led 41-19 after the first quarter. Others will remember it as Anthony Randolph’s last meaningful outing (If I had his 8,9,2,2,2 consistently from the end of my fantasy basketball bench, I’d be 1st instead of 6th). But all of us should remember taking away one thing in particular from what was, at the time, our worst performance of the season: we don’t always match up well against defensive-oriented, fundamentally sound teams. It certainly was the case that night, as the Bockers tallied a putrid eFG% of just 41%, while the Bucks – led in a balanced attack by Brandon Jennings’ efficient 19 (69% eFG%) – shot a scintillating 54% eFG% as a team.

Currently the Bucks sit at 3 and ½ games behind Indiana for the 8th and final playoff spot. With Brandon Jennings on the mend and the Bucks closer to full strength than they’ve been in months, they’re sure to come into the Garden hungry. And they’ll have the confidence teams tend to have after blowing someone out by 26.

As it’s likely to be the first time seeing Melo and Billups sporting the orange and blue, Tuesday’s matchup shouldn’t be looked at as a make-or-break game for the new look Knicks. But proving that they can take a little bump-and-grind from a team that’s actually been to the playoffs would, at the very least, be good on-the-job training for our almost inevitable run-in with the Celtics or Bulls come April.

March 13th & 15th – vs. & @ Indiana:

We’ve all seen it: the team that – for good or ill – fires its coach in midseason, hires his top assistant, only to see the team respond with a sense of immediacy few thought was possible. We saw it in Charlotte when Larry Brown departed, as Paul Silas’ loosening of the reigns helped the Bobcats win 6 of their next 8. Likewise, since firing Jim O’Brien the Pacers have gone 6-3, helping put Indiana into the 8th seed in the East with a record of 24-30.

The Knicks dispatched the Pacers down the stretch of their lone January 2nd meeting, although even that required a late flurry by Stoudemire, who scored 6 of the team’s last 7 points en route to a 98-92 win. This was also the game which saw Gallo leave with a sprained knee late in the 4th, a tweak that would keep him out for the next two weeks. Indeed, to call it a strange game would be an understatement: Indiana hoisted up 99 shots, netting an ugly eFG% of 41%. The Knicks, meanwhile, didn’t fare much better, racking up an eFG% of 47% on just 73 shots. Not surprisingly, Indiana’s +12 rebounding margin – including a 21-9 advantage on OREBs – helped contributed to their 26 shot advantage. Obviously, if the Knicks expect to even a split of this crucial home-and-home, they’ll have to do better on the boards, as it’s almost a given the Pacers won’t be as anemic in their shooting as they were for the January matinee.

Seven of Indiana’s next 11 games are against sub .500 teams. Meanwhile, 6 of the Knicks’ next 10 are against teams above .500, a stretch that includes rematches with Miami, Dallas, Orlando, Utah, and Atlanta. By the time March 13th rolls around, we could be looking at a playoff-like atmosphere, with two old foes squaring off for their first meaningful contests in almost a decade. Short of being a disaster, losing both of these games would almost certainly change the nature and scope of the 6-8 seed scrum in the East.

March 21st – vs. Boston:

Amar’e Stoudemire is shooting 50% from 3 this year. He should be shooting 67%.

We all know the clock should have read 0.7, and not 0.3. We all know we were leading much of the way– and by 7 after 3 quarters – having forced Boston into an up-tempo game that seemed to fall right into our hands. Unfortunately, the Celtics came out firing in the 4th quarter, hitting 4 of 8 from behind the arc before Pierce closed it out with a vintage fadeaway from the wing that sucked the air out of the Garden so fast you wondered how the building managed to stay standing.  And though Stat’s buzzer-beaten three brought back for a fleeting moment an insane energy and raucousness not seen in the World’s Most Famous in what seems like eons, even Spike Lee’s manic court theatrics weren’t enough to exorcise the devil we all already knew: Stat’s gorgeous can was the thinnest of hairs too late.

The Knicks have played the Celtics tough in both contests, and seem to have an uncanny knack of forcing the C’s out of their methodical, half-court sets and into occasional track meets. But the Celtics are the Celtics for a reason: they find ways to win down the stretch, regardless of tempo or deficit. The Knicks have twice found this out the hard way.

With Boston looking at no less than the 3 seed, it’s not like this game carries critical weight for either side in terms of playoff implications – at least not looking at it today. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. If anything, the March 6th meeting could provide an important bellwether for a Knicks squad which — despite still being arguably one piece removed from a certifiable Big Three — is doubtless eager to show the original incarnation that the coming decade will mean a change of guard in the Atlantic Division.

April 12th – vs. Chicago

With the game after this one – the second night of a back-to-back, no less – being the regular season finale in Boston, you could almost combine the two in terms of importance, a la the mid-March showdown with the Pacers. But the Chicago game in particular will likely have more immediate implications for the Knicks, who, if the season ended today, would be looking at a 7 game series with their old nemesis. Of course, by the time the actual games rolls around, we could easily be looking at the Boston game as the tone-setter, if Chicago’s now full-strength squad were to make a big enough run to steal the 2nd seed from the Celtics.

Barring catastrophe, April 12th will mark the first time the Knicks have seen a Bulls squad at full strength. When the teams first met way back on November 4th – a 120-112 win that saw the Knicks net an absurd TS% of 65%, connecting on a season high 16 threes – Carlos Boozer was still recovering from thumb surgery, helping the Knicks to a +4 rebounding margin that almost certainly have been prevented otherwise. I say “almost certainly” because, during the Knicks’ 103-95 Christmas Day win in the Garden, Boozer made up for his earlier absence with a 26 and 19. However this time it was Joakim Noah missing from Chicago’s front line, as a second half Knick surge and overall balanced attack helped the Bockers eke out an important win.

With the Bulls having won 10 of their last 12, Derrick Rose playing out of his mind, and Noah set to return in just over a week, the Knicks’ final home game promises to be as amped as these two teams’ feud is bitter. While there’s a chance the Bulls could find themselves solidly seeded with no incentive to go higher than 3rd gear, Tom Thibodeau’s squad is hungry and talented enough to make this one a statement game regardless.

But if both teams wake up the morning of the 12th fighting for their respective 3rd and 6th seeds, well, expect some strange ghosts to be circling the Garden from floor to rafters, and look for both teams to treat it like the playoff game it will almost certainly feel like.

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.

Lakers 113, Knicks 96

For the second time in three nights, the Knicks played a team from Los Angeles who came into the Garden on the second game of a back-to-back. And, for the second time, the Knicks looked like the more tired team. With their 11th loss in their last 15, the Knicks dropped to .500 for the first time since November 28th, while remaining a game and a half ahead of Philly for the 6th seed in the Conference.

But while Phil Jackson certainly brought a more tested and talented squad to the World’s Most Famous, the Garden’s Charmin-soft rims didn’t seem to know the difference: the Lakers shot a very loud 54%, including a solid 6 for 15 from distance. In fact, of the players who took more than one shot, only Ron Artest (2-9) and Steve Blake (2-5) managed to shoot below 50% from the field. It was the 5th time in 6 games the Knicks have surrendered over 50 for FG%, with the lone exception being a 100-98 loss at Philly a week ago.

Meanwhile, the Knick’ shooting woes continued, as they once again mirrored their opponents’ proficiency with a head-scratching under-50% outing for the 4th time in 5 games. Overall the Knicks shot 41% from the floor, including 5-20 from downtown. The lone bright spot – at least statistically – was Raymond Felton, who banked 20 with a gaudy TS% of 75%. Stat, meanwhile, again had trouble getting to the rim against the Lakers staunch interior, netting 24 on 20 shots. Ironically however, and despite playing in the veritable Laker forest of bigs, Stoudemire managed to grab 10 boards for the first time since pulling down 12 against the Thunder on January 22nd – a string of 8 games that has coincided with an equally confounding overall rebounding famine for the Knicks.

Despite the co-captains being somewhat effective, the rest of the rotation struggled to find a rhythm. Though continuing to show an increasing acumen for taking it to the tin, on this night the whistles were silent for Gallo, who went 4 for 15 (including 0 for 6 from deep) and finished with 12 points and 6 boards in 38 minutes. Fields, who seems to have hit at least a few bricks on the “Rookie Wall” the last few games, was deafeningly silent, going 2 for 6 (0 for 1 from 3) en route to a +/- (-17) that was second only to Wilson Chandler’s -18. For his part, Chandler – who had the unfortunate task of guarding Gasol for much of the night – played with slightly more confidence than we’ve seen in the last few games, netting 13 (5-10 from the field), 5 rebounds and 4 assists in a heavy 34 minutes off the bench.

Kobe did his Kobe thing in the first quarter, picking his spots and channeling performances past in tossing up 19 on 5-7 shooting, before finishing with an irritating 33 and a TS% of 82. For a while the Knicks kept up, and trailed by only 2 at the end of 1. For much of the first quarter and the first part of the second, the ball was moving on O, guys were getting open looks, and Ray in particular was honed in, scoring 14 and dishing out 4 assists en route to a lone-bright-spot kind of night.

Then the second quarter happened. Felton and Stat went to the bench – as did Kobe and most of the Laker starters. Mozgov, who played a rough-but-passable game en route to 7 points and 11 boards on 3-9 shooting, quickly to into foul trouble, opening up the middle for the Lakers, who began exploiting the Knicks weak interior D. This episode featured 6’8” Wilson Chandler stranded helplessly on Pau Gasol, with Amar’e guarding Bynum. It was also around this time that the Knicks apparently figured “we’re having such a swell time playing defense, why don’t we turn the ball over 9 times in the quarter and 4 times in 5 possessions?” The result was a 14-point halftime lead that found both the Garden crowd and the KB forum eerily silent.

The Knicks actually outrebounded the Lakers 44-41, including 13-7 in OREBs. While there were a few inevitable lapses – which happens when you’re playing against two smart, athletic 7-footers – the Knicks also showed at least a tentative propensity for boxing out, all but eliminating by the third quarter what was, in the first half, a sizable rebounding margin. Still, particularly in the first half, it seemed all of L.A.’s offensive boards came at times when the Knicks needed a change of possession the most.
New York never made a serious run in the second half, closing to within 10 only once, and the Lakers pulled away early in the 4th as Luke Walton led the team down the home stretch. Actually, I don’t know what happened in the last three minutes. ESPN actually spirited me away to overtime of the Cavs-Clippers game. Apparently, “relevance” only begins where 26-game losing streaks end.

Despite perhaps the worst coupling of games this year, if the last two LAX-fests have taught us anything, it’s that the end of a back-to-back can actually turn out favorably. With the Sixers and Bobcats lurking in the shadows, tonight’s game in Newark presents a definite litmus test for our faltering cagers. Fall below .500, and get ready to hear the Chris Sheridans and Ric Buchers of the world play the gut-‘em guitar for the next two weeks. Go in and dominate in an arena that just weeks ago was selling last-minute Nets-Cavas tickets for 50 cents, well, that’s what good teams do.