Driving to the basket in crunch time, Raymond Felton slipped to the floor and lost the basketball in the process. All he could do was lunge back at it and bat it toward J.R. Smith as the shot clock ticked closer to zero.
For the second straight possession, Smith beat the buzzer — this time with a 3-pointer — and the Knicks closed out a 125-120 victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.
”He makes plays like that. He makes tough shots. Sometimes I think he likes to take the tougher shot than the easier shot. They still go in,” said teammate Carmelo Anthony, who had 36 points and 12 rebounds while moving ahead of Kevin Durant to become the NBA’s top scorer.
”That shot, it was a nail in the coffin.”
Smith finished with 22 points, including the two biggest shots of the game. He connected on a 23-foot jumper from the right wing as the 24-second clock expired to put New York up 117-113 with 1:30 to play, then swished a 3-pointer with 56.8 seconds left that all but sealed New York’s 50th win of the season.
”It was just a freak accident, a great play,” Felton said. ”I slipped, knocked the ball to him and he did the rest. He knocked down the big shot.”
The victory was the Knicks’ 12th in a row and put them at 50 wins for the first time in 13 years. They also moved 2-1/2 games ahead of Indiana for second place in the Eastern Conference and moved onto the doorstep of clinching the Atlantic Division title.
Russell Westbrook had 37 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists for Oklahoma City, which fell a game behind San Antonio for first place in the West with five games left.
The Thunder had gained control of the race for first by beating the Spurs but were unable to complete a three-game sweep of San Antonio, Indiana and New York in a less than 72-hour span.
”We’re good. We’ve got five more games to go,” said Durant, who scored 27. ”We lost a tough one. This team, they shot the ball well tonight. They hit some tough shots all night. We forced them to shoot some tough ones and they hit them.
”You’ve got to tip your hat to them, but other than that, what’s the need to panic for? We’re good.”
Anthony’s scoring average improved one-tenth of a point to 28.44, while Durant’s stayed about the same at 28.35.
”I try not to think about that,” Anthony said. ”I just go out there and play ball.”
Anthony, playing at Oklahoma City for the first time since April 2010, added to one of the more colorful histories of any visiting player despite failing to extend his run of 40-point games to four. He tied Bernard King’s Knicks record with three in a row, going for 50, 40 and 41 in his previous three games.
Anthony hit game-winners in the closing seconds of Denver’s only two games at Oklahoma City in 2009, then was knocked unconscious in the third quarter before returning in the fourth as the Nuggets rallied to win the 2010 game.
He had missed his final chance with the Nuggets after his sister’s death and then sat out last season’s meeting because of wrist and ankle injuries.
This time, he came up with a season-high nine offensive rebounds as the Knicks amassed 23 points off of 19 offensive boards. Anthony’s last three baskets came on tip-ins. He twice put back his own misses, then tipped in Smith’s missed free throw in the final minute to help close it out.
”This is probably one of the biggest wins we’ve had in a long time,” Anthony said. ”Just for the simple fact that it’s on the road, it’s against a great Thunder team. We’ve been playing well. For us to come out here and keep our composure and win on the road and win here — this is a tough place to win.”
It was just the sixth home loss for the Thunder, who snapped a string of 21 straight games at Chesapeake Energy Arena that had been decided by double digits — 18 wins, three losses.
New York had a season high in scoring and the most points of any Thunder opponent this season, getting 16 from Felton, 15 from Tyson Chandler 14 from Jason Kidd and 13 from Chris Copeland.
”They’re hot,” Durant said. ”Carmelo was hitting shots over Serge (Ibaka) with a hand in his face, he was meeting him at the rim. He was missing, but he was getting those tips, and they were hitting 3s. . . . We were down two and J.R. Smith hit two tough jump shots in a row. I think our defense was good, as far as putting a hand up.”
Oklahoma City trailed by 12 early in the second half and 98-89 after Chandler’s two-handed slam to start the fourth quarter before rallying back. Durant’s jumper in the lane with 6:57 remaining put the Thunder up 105-104, but he did not score again.
Anthony’s relentlessness on the boards paid off. He twice stretched one-point leads with tip-ins of his own misses before Smith finally provided a bigger cushion. On one of the offensive rebounds, Anthony chipped one of Chandler’s teeth.
He attributed his strong play to being healthy again, after missing time this season with finger, ankle and knee injuries, and being motivated by the approaching playoffs.
”It’s the end of the season, the last month. Everybody’s fighting for spots. The playoffs are right around the corner,” Anthony said. ”This is the best basketball.”
NOTES: The Knicks’ Kenyon Martin missed his second straight game with a sore left knee. . . . New York’s 65 points matched the most given up by the Thunder in the first half this season. Denver had 65 in a 114-104 win at Oklahoma City on March 19. Houston’s 122 points were the previous high allowed by the Thunder. . . . Chandler was called for a technical foul in the fourth quarter when Nick Collison knocked the ball into his face in the process of fouling him and Chandler followed through to knock Collison to the floor. Collison left about six minutes later with a bloody nose from another play, after Anthony’s first tip-in.