Carmelo Anthony was aware of the standings and the injury report.
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With Amare Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin out and Milwaukee in town, the New York Knicks couldn’t afford more of the mediocre Melo.
”Tonight it was a game we had to win,” Anthony said. ”And I wanted to do everything in my power to do it.”
Anthony scored 28 points, delivering his highest total in two months without the injured Stoudemire and Lin, and the Knicks beat the Bucks 89-80 on Monday night to increase their lead for the final Eastern Conference playoff berth.
Shortly after learning Stoudemire was lost indefinitely with a bulging disk in his back, the Knicks opened a 2 1/2-game lead over the Bucks and prevented Milwaukee from winning the season series and clinching the tiebreaker if they finish with the same record.
Anthony, long one of the NBA’s elite scorers, hadn’t even reached 20 points in his last seven games. The Knicks won six of them, with Stoudemire leading the team in scoring over the last four. But with Stoudemire and Lin gone, the Knicks were missing about 32 points per game, and even with their stronger defensive play, some of that had to be replaced.
”I’ve just got to step my game up,” Anthony said. ”We’ve been winning. As far as scoring the basketball, we really haven’t been needing that. It’s been pretty much spread out but now with them two guys, there ain’t no telling what’s the situation with them. So it’s just time for me to step my game up in all aspects.”
Baron Davis scored 13 points but shot 3 for 12 with nine turnovers in his first start in place of Lin, who has a sore right knee. Tyson Chandler also had 13 and Iman Shumpert 11 as the Knicks overcame the absences of their second- and third-leading scorers.
But they won this one with defense, limiting Milwaukee to 36.5 percent shooting and containing high-scoring guards Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. Jennings shot 6 of 22 for 15 points, and Ellis made only two of 14 shots for four points.
Mike Dunleavy scored 26 points for the Bucks, but missed all three shots in a scoreless fourth quarter after he was 10 of 11 through three.
”We just tried to keep them as uncomfortable as possible and the rest is just the basketball gods telling them they’re not going to make shots today,” Shumpert said.
The Knicks won for the seventh time in eight games despite shooting just 35 percent, while Milwaukee lost for only the third time in its last 10. The Bucks had won five straight road games and suffered a rare loss at Madison Square Garden, where they had won six of seven.
”I don’t think either team played particularly well,” Bucks coach Scott Skiles said. ”I thought there were moments out there that were very un-NBAlike. It wasn’t high-level quality from both teams, and somebody had to win and they won.”
Anthony hadn’t scored this many since netting 35 points on Jan. 20 in a loss to the Bucks. But he said before the game he needed to step it up a notch after learning that Stoudemire would be sidelined, and came through despite tweaking his groin muscle again.
Anthony has battled that and other injuries along with an erratic shot this season, and though he insisted he wasn’t worried about his offense, Chandler said he’s noticed his All-Star teammate getting frustrated with himself.
”I could just see it. I think he’s been playing great personally,” Chandler said. ”He’s just an aggressive scorer and the greats love the pressure, and they get down on themselves when they feel like they’re not playing up to their expectations.”
Stoudemire left the Knicks’ victory over Detroit on Saturday after saying his back tightened up. An MRI on Monday afternoon revealed the injury, which the Knicks said won’t require surgery. He had led them in scoring in four straight games, and the Knicks remember from their playoff loss to Boston last year how tough it is without Stoudemire.
It’ll be easier if they keep defending like this.
The Knicks outscored the Bucks 21-12 in the third quarter to take the lead despite shooting just 3 of 21 from the field. They went 15 of 18 from the free-throw line while Milwaukee didn’t attempt one.
New York pushed it to 84-74 on JR Smith’s 3-pointer with 4:38 remaining, and after Milwaukee scored six in a row, Shumpert’s 3-poiner with 2:09 to go put it away at 87-80.
”We missed a lot of gimmes, a lot of shots that we normally make,” said Jennings, who scored 36 points in a victory here earlier this season.
The Bucks started 3 of 15 as the Knicks raced to a 20-10 lead before Dunleavy checked in. He scored 14 points in the final 3:42, making all five shots, as Milwaukee trimmed it to 30-26.
Dunleavy fueled a 12-0 burst in the second quarter with 10 points as Milwaukee turned a three-point deficit into a 49-40 advantage on his layup with 3:02 to go. He had 24 points on 9-of-10 shooting in just 13 minutes as the Bucks took a 52-47 lead into halftime.
Notes: Bucks F Carlos Delfino played just 13 minutes before leaving with an injured right groin. … The teams meet again in Milwaukee on April 11. … Knicks interim coach Mike Woodson was coaching his 500th NBA game. He is 213-287.