Two days before they faced the Celtics on Jan. 24, the Knicks said they had one of their best practices of the season, where, as Carmelo Anthony described it, they "really competed and got after each other, fouled a little bit, got physical out there."
The Knicks went on to win 89-86, avenging their Jan. 7 loss to Boston at the Garden.
A similar storyline unfolded on Sunday night in the Knicks' 99-93 win over the 76ers. Not only did the Knicks lose to the Sixers previously on Jan. 26, but they were entering tonight on a four-game losing streak. So they made sure to get after it a lot more in practice this week.
While Steve Novak told ESPNNewYork.com after the Sixers game that Mike Woodson always encourages "intensity" in practices, he said this time the players wanted to make a bigger statement among each other. And they carried that right over to the jump tonight, building a 52-40 halftime lead and never trailing from there.
"I think it's come from within; it's come from the guys," Novak said. "We've realized that this is kind of the last 20, 30 games of the season before you really dig in."
In the first quarter, the Knicks came out with an extra step on defense, showing harder on pick-and-rolls, playing more physical down low and making the extra play. In different possessions in the first half, Iman Shumpert was all over Jrue Holiday and caused him to lose his dribble once; Tyson Chandler blocked one of Spencer Hawes' shots; Anthony stripped Hawes inside and Amar'e Stoudemire went after a loose ball and saved it, which resulted in a Novak 3-pointer.
"We definitely did a better job (defensively)," Novak said. "I think our talk was better, and that's really the key with defensive coverages because they change every game depending on the personnel."
In addition, Jason Kidd had two steals in the first half -- more fuel to a Knicks transition game that was a big part of their early success this season.
"That's the way we played in the beginning of the year," Raymond Felton said. "That's when we had all that success, so we're trying to get back to that."
While Holiday (30 points) and Evan Turner (21) got theirs, the Knicks were more consistent throughout the game with their hard-nosed defense. One play down the stretch highlighted the energy and effort they displayed throughout. With 3:49 to play and the Knicks up comfortably, 94-84, Felton and Chandler quickly attacked Sixers backup point guard Jeremy Pargo, forcing him into a back-court turnover.
"We were much more aggressive on the defensive end -- a lot more traps," Anthony said. "We definitely wanted it to be a very high intensity game, high energetic game, especially on our home court. We didn't want to lose this game."
Melo also spoke about the significance of this week's practices.
"Guys have been getting after it," he said. "Our practices have been a lot more physical than even the games that we've been playing. If we can beat up on each other like that in practice, and compete against each other, going into games should be easy from a competitive standpoint."
Said Felton, "It's putting us back in a physical state, it's putting us back in that grind, getting after people."
After the game, the team discussed the sense of urgency which was on show tonight. For example, Woodson said "we had to win this tonight" and Novak said losing is "just not acceptable" at this point in the season.
While the Knicks are still missing a big-man anchor in their second unit, they can maintain an edge if they can consistently match Sunday's effort. As Novak said, there should be no let-off at this point.
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