To contend, Knicks must mesh talent

'Melo-less Knicks show grit in loss to OKC – if only they could figure out how to mesh all that talent.

Generally speaking, the New York Knicks frown upon the idea of congratulating themselves for keeping things competitive, and they’re hardly the type to exult in a valiant effort following a tough loss. Nor should they be, as a team with noble — if far-fetched — aspirations for the franchise’s first NBA title in three decades.

But in the case of Thursday night’s 95-94 loss to the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder, the Knicks had plenty to be proud of, and their admiration of their own performance, from head coach Mike Woodson on down, was justified.

On a night that they were without leading scorer Carmelo Anthony, who was out for the second consecutive game with a knee injury, the Knicks (37-22) played sound team basketball and received valuable contributions from every corner of the floor — doing so when a solid team effort was the only thing that would keep them afloat against the defending Western Conference champions.

The Knicks played stoic defense and battled back from a sloppy start that very nearly turned ugly. They locked down star point guard Russell Westbrook for most of the night and they made things difficult for Kevin Durant, which is about the most you can hope for against the NBA’s scoring leader and one of the most lethal offensive players on earth.

Certainly, a win would have been preferred, what with New York still clinging to the hope that it can catch the sizzling Miami Heat over the season’s final 23 games (or, more realistically, that it can hold off Indiana for the No. 2 seed in the East). But to play the way the Knicks did without the motor that generally makes their offense go — and sometimes grinds it to a halt — was refreshing, and it was important to be reminded how much depth and talent New York has behind its franchise player.

“When one guy steps down, we've got to have another guy step forward,” said Tyson Chandler, who had nine points and 10 rebounds. “We're a team, and any time we suit up, we're going to battle. I thought it was a well-fought game, and you win some and you lose some like that. But when you play like that, you accept those (losses).”

The star of the show against the Thunder was J.R. Smith, the wild-card swingman who is as likely to carry a team, as he did Thursday, as he is to dash its chances at victory — like he did in a loss to Miami on Sunday. Against Oklahoma City (45-16), Smith matched a career-high 29 field-goal attempts and scored a season-high 36 points.

Unfortunately, Smith sputtered in the fourth quarter and missed his final four shot attempts, including a potential game winner as time expired. But Oklahoma City had offensive issues of its own, and made just one bucket in the final 5:30 of the game, which was ultimately decided by free throws.

“Whenever 'Melo is out and it's a close game, (Woodson) always gives me the ball and gives me the leeway to do what I think is right,” Smith said. “It shows a lot of confidence that he has in me, as well as my teammates.”

In addition to Smith and Chandler the Knicks also received valuable contributions from Jason Kidd, who grabbed a season-high 10 rebounds, and Amar’e Stoudemire, who had 16 points and eight rebounds in the loss.

Stoudemire has been playing especially well of late as he continues to improve following knee surgery that kept him out of the Knicks’ first 30 games. Even with a 5-of-16 shooting performance on Thursday, the former All-Star is averaging 16.8 points on 63.5 percent from the floor over New York’s last eight games.

But the real credit, beyond Smith’s hot night and Stoudemire’s latest throwback showing, should go to the Knicks’ defense, which overcame a slow start to make a potential blowout competitive.

After allowing the Thunder to hit nine of their first 14 shots, including a 16-0 first-quarter run that turned a 13-7 Knicks lead into a 23-13 deficit, New York held Oklahoma City to 39.3 percent shooting the rest of the way, limiting Westbrook to 3-of-16 shooting in that span. Even Durant, who scored a team-high 34 points for Oklahoma City, struggled in the fourth, hitting just 3 of 8 shots, missing all three of his 3-point attempts.

“(Our defense) is what we can hang our hat on,” Stoudemire said. “The bigs switched out on players and guarded well, the guards did a great job on the screen and rolls. … We did a good job on Westbrook and I feel we did a good job on Kevin Durant. He can get hot at any moment, but for the most part we played pretty solidly.”

Defensive juggernauts or not, the Knicks still aren’t contenders because they rely too much on the 3 and consistently find a way to be less than the sum of their considerable parts. But Thursday’s loss at least shows they have talent behind their star, and potential to be dangerous if they could find a way to make all the pieces fit around Anthony.

It’s still unlikely the Knicks learn to mesh well enough to be all that dangerous in the postseason, but a healthy ‘Melo playing alongside Stoudemire, Smith and Raymond Felton makes for a respectable core that, at the very least, makes New York an intriguing option, if nothing else, should disaster strike the Heat.

"We've got to learn from games like this," Woodson said. "(But when) we’re playing one of the best teams in our league, and you don't have one of your best players, and we still have a shot to win it — I tip my hat to our guys."

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.

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