All eyes on the Knicks, Nets as they meet for inaugural Battle for NYC
NEW YORK -- Carmelo Anthony elevated and fired, knocking down jump shot after jump shot in New York's 121-100 victory against Detroit on Sunday. A 29-point, three-assist effort was his latest addition to a sparkling start, one that has catapulted Anthony into the early MVP discussion and the 9-3 Knicks toward the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
A few hours later, just across the river, Joe Johnson, Brooklyn's $20-million-per-year import, scored 21 points in a 98-85 win over Portland, bumping the Nets to 8-4.
Smile, David Stern: Basketball is back in New York, and the immigration of the Nets to Brooklyn -- and the palatial $1 billion Barclays Center they play in -- has created a legitimate battle for the back pages in the world's media capital.
The early-season success of the Knicks and Nets -- 1-2 in the Atlantic Division -- adds importance to the team's first meeting, in Brooklyn on Monday night. (The teams were originally scheduled to play in the season opener in Brooklyn, but the game was canceled in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.)
Expectations for the Knicks were tempered before the season when power forward Amar'e Stoudemire was ruled out for six to eight weeks with a left knee injury. Yet New York has thrived behind Anthony, a stingy defense and accurate perimeter shooting.
That Anthony, the NBA's third-leading scorer (25.6 points per game), is performing offensively is no surprise: He has averaged at least 20 points in each of his nine seasons. But this season Anthony, operating primarily as a power forward for the first time in his career, has blended overall efficiency (47 percent shooting) with steady three-point shooting (career-best 41.9 percent). That combination has made him "almost impossible for a big guy to guard," according to teammate Raymond Felton
A vaunted three-point attack has complemented Anthony. The Knicks rank first in three-point attempts (29.1 per game) and second in three-point percentage (41.8), paced by four regulars (J.R. Smith, Jason Kidd, Felton and Ronnie Brewer) shooting at least 42 percent, with long-range specialist Steve Novak (40.3 percent) right behind them.
Coach Mike Woodson admits that during his six seasons guiding the Hawks, he didn't like to rely on the three-pointer too much. In New York, however, Woodson says he has accepted it.
"It doesn't concern me because we have guys that can make them," Woodson said. "I think the league has changed. Everyone around the league is shooting threes. I don't like living by it, but if you have guys open, you have to take that shot."
Woodson does like defense, and save for a rough two-game stretch in Texas last week, the Knicks have been playing plenty of it. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler has been the linchpin, backed by 38-year-old Rasheed Wallace and 40-year-old Kurt Thomas on the Knicks' front line.
More than anything, though, it has been an individual commitment to defense, led by Anthony, that has transformed a team that ranked 22nd or worse in points allowed per possession in Mike D'Antoni's three full seasons into a solid unit.
"We know we can score with the best of them, but our D has to be our focus," Smith said. "We're not going to let up on that at all."
In Brooklyn, the Nets' defense has been uneven -- the slow-paced team ranks first in points allowed (91.5) and 26th in defensive field-goal percentage (45.6) -- but a potent offense has compensated for it. The backcourt combination of Deron Williams and Johnson has misfired at times (a combined 40 percent from the floor), but the duo is averaging 32.6 points.
Center Brook Lopez's healthy return has boosted the Nets. Lopez -- who missed all but five games last season with a foot injury -- is averaging a team-high 19 points on 55.1 percent shooting. Andray Blatche, picked up off the scrap heap after being amnestied by Washington last summer, has provided a lift off the bench, averaging nine points and 5.2 rebounds in 17 minutes.
"[Blatche] is trying to do everything I ask him to do," Nets coach Avery Johnson told reporters last week. "I'm pretty hard on him, but I think he's really taken to it."
As the clock ticked down in the fourth quarter of the Nets' victory Sunday, a chant began to filter through the lower bowl of the Barclays Center.
Indeed, in the minds of many fans, a rivalry between two teams that play in such close proximity -- 20 minutes if you take the Manhattan Bridge -- has already been born. But for the players, the competition requires a little more history.
"I don't consider it a rivalry," Chandler said. "Honestly, I feel more animosity toward the Heat or the Celtics than I do the Nets."
Said Felton: "We still have New York on our chests. It's going to be a rivalry because that's what everyone is making it out to be."
The best rivalries, of course, are forged through success, by pitting two teams fighting for a spot at the top. The Knicks and Nets will meet for the first time as borough neighbors on Monday, but if the early returns are any indication, a meeting in April or May could be next.