As the Knicks scrambled to pick up the pieces in the wake of coach Mike D’Antoni’s sudden resignation earlier this week, interim coach Mike Woodson made a vow to New York fans that things were going to be different going forward.
And thus far, he’s been right — but only to an extent.
Things were different Friday during New York’s 115-100 throttling of the Indiana Pacers — just like they were two nights earlier, during a 121-79 rout of Portland — but in both instances, things were only different in the sense that they were the same as they used to be.
It would be easy to say that the Knicks have been a changed team on offense since Woodson took over, sharing the ball, playing well in transition, running pick and rolls and getting everyone involved. But the reality is that they’re playing just like they did when Carmelo Anthony was out with an injury and the excitement over Jeremy Lin’s play was at its peak.
For all the talk coming into Friday’s game about Woodson transforming the offense and handing the reins to Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, the game plan essentially was unaltered. In fact, throughout each of the past two games, the Knicks’ offense has resembled D’Antoni-ball much more than it has taken the shape of Woodson’s isolation-based system.
On the other side of the court, however, the defense has shone, showing an unwavering intensity that had been absent since the team’s seven-game winning streak in February — one that saw the Knicks hold each of their opponents to less than 100 points and four of them to less than 90.
During that streak, New York held its opponents to an average of 42.9 percent shooting from the floor and just 26.2 percent from 3-point range. On Friday, the Pacers shot 39.5 percent from the field and hit just four of their first 12 3-point attempts as the Knicks built an insurmountable lead.
“They’re putting more heat on the basketball, 94 feet up the floor,” Woodson said of his team. “Our bigs are up, we are putting heat on wing entries where teams are trying to initiate offense. They’re fighting in the low post. If there’s a loose ball, I like to think we’re going to come up with it.”
In addition, the Knicks’ attitude was different from the start Friday — as evidenced by the pregame dunk contest that players such as Anthony, Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert participated in. That helped the Madison Square Garden crowd grow as raucous as ever, their fervor reaching a euphoria that hadn’t been seen in perhaps three weeks.
Even the Knicks players can’t help but draw parallels between their latest two wins and the unexpected winning streak that sparked the Linsanity movement.
“You can’t really describe how much fun we were having during the seven-game win streak, and that’s what we’re building towards now,” said Lin, who filled the stat sheet Friday with 13 points, five rebounds and five assists. “I think if we get a couple more (wins), this team will be even more fun.”
So it’s not so much that New York (20-24) has done anything it hasn’t done before as it climbs back into the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Knicks are just getting back to playing the type of basketball that bred so much success during February.
The only thing that’s new about the Knicks these days is the guy calling the plays — the same plays they were running before, mind you — and maybe that a change in scenery was all the motivation they needed.
“Unfortunately, sometimes it takes something dramatic to open up guys’ eyes,” said Knicks center Tyson Chandler, who had 16 points on 8-of-11 shooting Friday. “Guys now are responding to everything that has happened, and now we’re trying to make a positive out of a negative.”
Additionally, some might say the Pacers had Friday’s beatdown coming to them — many in Madison Square Garden did, loudly — but Indiana never could have known that a seemingly innocuous comment from its star player would light a fire under a Knicks roster in desperate need of a spark.
When asked earlier this week about his team’s back-to-back games Friday and Saturday with the Knicks, Pacers forward Danny Granger responded by telling reporters that they were “very winnable.”
Shots fired? Please. Calling two games against a reeling, sub-.500 team “winnable” is hardly the stuff of smack-talk legend. But the Knicks took Granger’s remarks personally.
“He just got to be careful what he asks for,” Stoudemire told reporters after Thursday’s practice. “I don’t know if he’s in a position to speak too boldly right now. We got something to say about that tomorrow."
And then they followed through.
From the opening tip, the Knicks played with the kind of intensity that was typical of the team before Anthony’s return to the lineup on Feb. 20, rather than the passivity that was constantly on display during the 2-8 stretch after his return — a slide that, in the end, led to D’Antoni’s demise.
“With the change, we had to come together as a team and really ask ourselves what we want,” said Anthony, who scored 12 points on just 4-of-12 shooting. “We want to win basketball games, we want to get to the playoffs, and why not start now?”
New York jumped out to a 21-6 first-quarter lead and eventually increased the advantage to 50-31 at the half. By the end of the third quarter, the Pacers were down 30, and only then did they make a rally, scoring 42 fourth-quarter points against a listless and unmotivated New York defense and making the game respectable in time for the final buzzer.
The win was just the second straight for New York, but it felt like the start of something bigger.
“It was sort of an eye-opener for us,” reserve forward Steve Novak, who had 16 points Friday, said of the Knicks’ recent six-game losing streak.
“When you’re winning you feel like you’re doing everything right, and when you’re losing you feel like you’re doing everything wrong. I feel like that was a time when we really did a lot of soul searching as a team, and we really don’t want to go back to that.”
They’ll get another chance to revive their image Saturday when the Pacers and Knicks play again in Indianapolis.
“I thought tonight was playoff atmosphere, and it was great for the fans to see how these guys will come out and respond,” Woodson said. “Tomorrow, going back against the same team, they’re not going to forget what happened tonight, so we’ve got to go out and meet that challenge.”
At some point, the adrenaline from New York’s unexpected coaching change will wear off, the schedule will get tougher once again and we’ll really see what this team is made of. We’ll see how Woodson and his team adjust to struggles. We’ll see if the Knicks can maintain the defensive energy that they showed Friday.
But until that happens, these new Knicks are simply a rebirth of the old Knicks. For now, that’s OK.