NEW YORK -- With 23.2 seconds remaining, the Madison Square Garden crowd stood on its feet to shower the New York Knicks with a hard-earned standing ovation.
As satisfied fans stood around Phil Jackson, the Zen Master remained in his center-court seat but managed to break out a smile as a raucous “Let’s Go Knicks!” chant broke out.
The streaking Knicks didn’t just win their seventh straight game with a stirring 92-86 victory over the Indiana Pacers. They now are starting to believe that they can not only track down the eighth spot in the East but also make noise in the playoffs.
“That we can accomplish it, and not only that we can accomplish it, but we can do something once we get in,” Tyson Chandler said when asked what the win over the Pacers makes them believe. “I don’t really think a team wants to see us in the first round.”
The Knicks are still a long way from getting into the postseason dance as they trail the Atlanta Hawks (31-35) by four games with just 14 games remaining. But Wednesday night’s win over East-leading Indiana adds legitimacy to their streak and shows how good they are playing.
If the Knicks can keep this up, they could potentially build a double-digit winning streak. The Knicks next play at the Philadelphia 76ers, who are streaking in the other direction with 22 straight losses. After that, the Knicks play the Cleveland Cavaliers (26-42) at home on Sunday. Cleveland is without the injured Kyrie Irving.
The Knicks then embark on a five-game West Coast swing that could make or break their postseason hopes. They face the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz on the road trip.
April doesn’t bring any relief for the Knicks. Their last seven games of the season are against Eastern Conference playoff contenders. They play the Brooklyn Nets twice, Toronto Raptors twice, visit the Miami Heat and play the Washington Wizards. With exception to Miami, all those teams will be jockeying for playoff positioning so they will likely have something to play for.
But the Knicks now know what they are capable of when they play defense and play with grit and determination. They held Paul George to 4-of-17 shooting and 17 points. They forced the Pacers’ starters into 11 turnovers and perhaps more impressive was the fact that they did not back down against one of the best defensive teams in the NBA.
Amar’e Stoudemire was a factor inside. He scored 21 points against Indiana and now has scored in double-figures in his past eight games, averaging 16.9 points.
“Amar’e has been playing at a very high level,” Carmelo Anthony said. “We’ve been feeding off of that. You can see at times we’re going at him. We’re riding that horse.”
Anthony put on an offensive show for Jackson with 34 points. He scored on an array of isolation moves, even posting up George before executing a spin-and-dunk move that would have impressed Michael Jordan.
Something that might’ve caught Jackson’s eye more than that though was Anthony’s assists. Four of his five dimes came in the final 13:32, each one of them a big assist. One came on a Pablo Prigioni 3-pointer with 1:32 left in the third and then another came at the end of the quarter when he threw a pass downcourt to a streaking Prigioni for a basket that came off a goaltending call to give the Knicks a five-point lead going into the fourth quarter.
With 9:22 left in the fourth, Anthony found Iman Shumpert for a 3-pointer after Indiana got within two.
“I think Iman’s 3 was probably the biggest shot of the night,” Knicks coach Mike Woodson said. “Melo had nowhere to go.”
Anthony’s final assist came with 1:02 left when he found Raymond Felton for a 15-footer that pushed the Knicks up 88-80. Felton would steal the ball from David West and Anthony was fouled with 23.2 seconds left.
The Garden then showed its appreciation. The Zen Master smiled. And the Knicks’ belief soared to new heights after what could be their biggest win of the season.
Who knows? Perhaps Atlanta or even Charlotte (33-36) slip into a funk and the Knicks keep playing like this and see Indiana again in a seven-game series.
Anything can happen. Just look at the Knicks, who not that long ago lost seven straight games.
“The teams that we play, we feel like they’re in our way,” Anthony said. “That’s our motto right now: 'They’re in our way.' We don’t want to let nothing stop that.”