By Ben Golliver
The Knicks closed on a 27-11 run to defeat the Spurs 104-100 in San Antonio on Thursday night. The win kept New York as the NBA's only undefeated team at 6-0.
• No rational or realistic blueprint for beating the Spurs in San Antonio would start with, "Let's just make sure our guards show way more poise and fearlessness down the stretch." Last year's Spurs went 28-5 at home, and only two of those losses came when both Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were healthy. The AT&T Center is just one of those places where teams, even good teams, enter expecting the worst thanks to Parker's overall orchestration and shooting and Ginobili's foul-drawing excellence and late-game assassin reputation. You don't want to play in the AT&T Center, you don't want to play a close game in the AT&T Center, and you definitely don't want to have to mount a major fourth-quarter comeback in the AT&T Center.
The Knicks threw those rules out the window on Thursday, surging back in the game's final seven minutes to turn a 12-point deficit into a four-point win. They did it, mostly, thanks to the backcourt trio of Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd and J.R. Smith, who combined for a staggering 22 points in the final 7:01.
All three had good nights: Felton finished with 25 points (10-for-20 shooting), seven assists and three rebounds; Kidd posted 14 points (5-for-8 shooting), two assists, two steals and three blocks; and Smith had 17 points (6-for-13), five rebounds and two assists. Together, that's 56 points on 41 shots and 51.2 percent shooting.
The method was as impressive as the output. Play after play down the stretch, these three took heavy, aggressive action. The decisive stretch started just inside the three-minute mark, Knicks down three, when Smith, blanketed by Kawhi Leonard, an excellent, long defender, was forced to work off the dribble with the shot clock running down. Using a crossover to create space, Smith spun beautifully back into the middle and rose high just outside the protected circle to bury a 6-footer over Tim Duncan. The difficult sequence was made to look easy.
After the teams traded empty possessions, Ginobili picked up his dribble and, harassed by Felton, forced a pass that was intercepted by the always-ready Kidd, who immediately pushed the tempo back the other direction to take advantage of the turnover. Kidd fed Carmelo Anthony, who dribble-faked and drove, collapsing the Spurs defense, which expected him to shoot. Instead, he dumped to an open Felton near the left block who, rather than force a shot over Duncan, pivoted and kicked out to a trailing Smith, who was wide open. Smith entered the game shooting a ridiculous 72.2 percent (13-of-18) from three-point range and he didn't miss this one, putting the Knicks ahead 97-95 with 1:47 remaining.
Stunned, the Spurs were unable to crack the Knicks' defense on the next possession, with Kidd, Felton and center Tyson Chandler defending the perimeter beautifully and Anthony rushing out to make Leonard think twice about shooting a late jumper. With a two-point lead and total momentum now, the Knicks patiently ran a double screen for Felton, who drove briefly before finding Kidd open at the right angle. Kidd stuck the three to make it a two-possession game with one minute to play. That was all she wrote.
That two-minute stretch encapsulated the Knicks' season to date: red-hot shooting, timely and smart guard play, good decisions, unselfish effort by Anthony and absolute fearlessness. The Knicks forced the Spurs to buckle here, that's no exaggeration.
• Three-point shooting continues to be a major driver of New York's success. On Thursday, the Knicks shot 11-for-25 (44 percent) from beyond the arc, upping their season average to 42.8 percent. That's good for second in the NBA and has helped push New York to No. 1 in offensive efficiency as well. The question, really, is when the other shoe will drop. That's actually been the question since the team's opener, when the Knicks hit 19-for-36 threes to beat the Heat, but the fall back to earth has been decidedly slower than you might expect.
It's still coming, though. Smith, who can stroke it, is just in the outer galaxy right now. His 72.2 percent three-point shooting entering Thursday was nearly double his career average of 37.1 percent and it was more than double his 34.7 percent last season. Entering Thursday, Kidd was shooting 50 percent from deep; his career-best is 42.5 percent and he shot 35.4 percent last year. Felton was shooting 39.1 percent; that's not too much higher than his career-best 38.5 percent, but he shot 30.5 percent last year and he's a career 33 percent shooter. Ronnie Brewer had hit 50 percent of his threes; he's a career 25.6 percent shooter from deep and shot a career-best 27.5 percent last year. Of those four, Felton is the only one who is shooting it at a level that can be expected to continue. Having Smith, Kidd and Brewer return to reasonable averages won't necessarily be fatal to the Knicks' new hopes of making a deep playoff push, but it will require adjustments. • The Spurs player you felt most sorry for after this one was Tiago Splitter, who looked destined for headlines for one of the only times in his brief career. Before New York's strong close, Splitter, San Antonio's mobile Brazilian center, went on a one-man run of his own. Splitter scored all 13 of his points during a 2:30 stretch of the fourth, the only member of the Spurs to get on the board from the 27-second mark of the third to the 5:07 mark of the fourth. Splitter is mobile, long and intelligent, the type of player who you would expect to average more than 9.3 points and 5.2 rebounds (his numbers last year) and definitely the type of guy who would play more than 19 minutes per game on most teams. This was a prolific scoring stretch but it wasn't all that diverse; all four of his buckets came from 2 feet or closer, with two set up beautifully by Parker, and he tacked on five free throws. That last part was worth noting: The 62.1 percent career free-throw shooter went 5-for-5 on the night.