- Johnette Howard, ESPN Staff Writer
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The leftover paranoia from the New York Knicks' barren years still trails them. But once you get past the funky starting lineups that Mike Woodson has run out lately (Kurt Thomas? James White?) and ignore how half the Knicks' banged-up roster is old enough to remember way back when Dick Bavetta had hair, the Knicks showed a little something against the Oklahoma City Thunder Thursday night that suggested their cynics really ought to relax a little.
The Knicks again displayed a trait that gives them a chance to be a threat come playoff time.
When you put one of the NBA's best teams in front of them, the Knicks turn into giant killers.
If Oklahoma City didn't know that about the Knicks before pulling into the Garden, they should have. The Thunder should have anticipated the Knicks might throw a scare into them, even though New York was missing Carmelo Anthony for a second straight night, and OKC had Kevin Durant, who began the night leading Anthony in the NBA scoring race by a sliver (28.6 to 28.2 PPG). Here's why: Four long months since the Knicks' 18-5 start, there's a pattern to this Knicks season that remains clear.
The dreg teams of the league don't especially inspire the Knicks. And their 'been there, done that' veterans aren't able to sustain the same level of energy every night. But throw a big-game target in front of them like the Thunder, who began the night with the league's third-best record, and suddenly the Knicks recapture everything that got them off to their great early-season start. The Knicks' defense comes alive. Their 3-pointers start to fall. Suddenly, center Tyson Chandler is getting those putback dunks around the rim again, Amar'e Stoudemire is scoring off the bench and the good J.R. Smith shows up.
Smith had a season-high 36 points in Anthony's absence Thursday. And if he could've scratched out just one more hoop among the final two shots he took for the Knicks in the final 33 seconds, the Thunder would've gone down instead of escaping with a 95-94 win.
The Knicks weren't supposed to make it even that close.
In addition to missing Anthony, the Knicks were playing their fourth game in five nights while, Oklahoma City rested the night before. Yet the Knicks still tossed out the sort of game that felt like a throwback to their season-opening start that made them the talk of the NBA.
Nothing during that stretch validated the Knicks more than their 2-0 record against the Miami Heat and a win in San Antonio, which now owns the best record in the NBA. Those wins were the first thing that stamped the Knicks as a legitimately good team this year, back when no one was sure what to expect. Even now, all these months later, that trio of early wins -- plus another one the Knicks added over the Spurs on Jan. 3 -- remain their touchstone. The Start still colors all perceptions and spiked-up expectations about how good this Knicks season can be, especially when considering they were seven points short this week of being 6-0 against the three best teams in the league.
Now granted, those memories can seem like a bad thing when people scream the Knicks should be better than the wildly erratic effort they had on Wednesday against lottery-bound Detroit. The Knicks do still have the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
But The Start is a good thing that makes the Knicks believe they can come out in a game with the odds of beating the Thunder stacked against them, and nearly steal a win that they're not supposed to get without Anthony. Given the looks the Knicks had at the basket near the end, they thought they actually should've pulled it off.
"I thought it was going to be an even better night," Smith said, referring to how he faded to a 2-for-9 shooting finish in the final quarter after a sizzling 12-for-20 start.
Then, same as Woodson had in his postgame press conference minutes earlier, Smith second-guessed how he went for a jump shot just before the buzzer rather than drive to the rim for a game-winning try with just seconds left.
But it doesn't change the fact that what this flawed Knicks team lacks is often offset by how hard they simply fight.
Woodson groused a little about their end-game execution even as he praised their effort. And he was right. There are times when the Knicks forget to move the ball around, and look like they may never reach 10 assists for an entire game.
Marcus Camby has barely played this season, and Jason Kidd is hoping to catch a second wind. Rasheed Wallace is out with a broken foot and Kenyon Martin was signed off the couch to take his place a couple weeks ago.
Woodson has been patching rotations and lineups together ever since. But look: Martin was just the latest Knick to find his game when it mattered. He fouled out against Oklahoma City. But not before coaxing two alley-oop dunks out of his 35-year-old legs and laying out Durant with a hard foul as Durant (34 points) seemed heading to the rim to dunk -- a statement play by Martin that Woodson praised as "old school."
It would be nice if the Knicks could muster the same intensity against everyone, not just when one the league's best team is in town and they're on national TV. But given what they are, it's probably unrealistic, too.
The Knicks could never say this too much out loud, but face it: They're a veteran team now stuck in the dog days of March, and they already look like they're thinking of the playoffs -- or, more accurately, staying healthy enough to make a run once the playoffs arrive.
That approach may cost the Knicks a few games here or there if they don't kill themselves against the Detroits and Washingtons of the league as they do against the Thunder or Heat. But taking the long view is smart.
The Knicks know it's more important to be playing their best by April into May, not now. They're rolling the dice that all the great stuff they did during The Start -- that demonstrated ability of theirs to play like giant killers against big-time teams -- will be there again when they need it most.
"We're the type of team, we're going to battle you," Chandler said Thursday night. "You win some, you lose some. But when you play like that, you can accept games like these."
The Knicks just missed bagging another big-game target Thursday. But to borrow one of Woodson's favorite words, they "absolutely" think there's no one they can't beat. Now the Thunder know it too.
Come playoff time, that's a pretty good trait to have.
4dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann