By Ben Golliver
The Knicks easily defeated the Spurs 100-83 at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, improving their record to 22-10.
• Spurs coach Gregg Popovich can't be thrilled by his team's flat energy level and lack of fluidity in this one, but he's surely not surprised either. Indeed, San Antonio's egg-laying performance in New York went a long way in proving Popovich's point about strategically resting his players earlier this season.
To recap, the Spurs were fined $250,000 by NBA commissioner David Stern for sending home Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green rather than play them (or even suit them up) for a nationally-televised game against the Heat. Popovich's plan at the time was to increase their rest time and comfort level in advance of a key division game against the Grizzlies rather than run his guys into the ground against fully-rested, top competition on the road.
Similar schedule circumstances faced the Spurs in this one. San Antonio was playing its fourth game in five nights, of which three were road games. They were playing on the second night of a back-to-back against a team that was coming off of a rest day. They were playing one of the top teams in the league in a tough place to play: the Knicks are 22-10 overall, second best in the East, and 13-3 in Madison Square Garden.
The results were essentially Popovich's worst nightmare. San Antonio, entering Thursday with the NBA's fourth most efficient offense, shot just 36.4 percent from the field and 26.5 percent from team. San Antonio managed just 40 first half points. None of the Spurs topped 12 points for the game. Popovich responded by waiving a fairly early white flag, playing Dunan, Parker, Ginobili and Green less than 24 minutes apiece. The Knicks broke out of the grind early in the second half and, to no one's great surprise, the Spurs couldn't keep up.
This is exactly the type of loss Popovich was trying to avoid in Miami. It's the worst of all worlds for the Spurs: they lost, they lost ugly, their key guys played rather than getting some extra recuperation. The nature of the contest also proved his point. Who really benefited from seeing the Spurs' stars play half a game without much energy before sitting down the stretch? Would anyone really have gone home less happy if the stars had rested? Shouldn't Popovich be allowed to just rest them in the first place if he rests them for virtually all of the fourth quarter? Shouldn't we just acknowledge that the NBA's schedule is demanding enough that coaches should have full autonomy to handle their rotations and line-ups, regardless of the desires of television executives and the league office?
• After two straight avoidable losses to inferior competition, the Knicks are surely glad to get back on the winning path. The Carmelo Anthony / J.R. Smith tandem was simply too much for the Spurs' wings: Anthony finished with a game-high 23 points and eight rebounds and Smith added 20 points and five rebounds off the bench. San Antonio's ability to contain New York's wings took a bit hit when Stephen Jackson sprained his ankle by falling on a courtside waitress who was serving NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Given how this game played out, it's possible that Jackson could have finished with a triple-double, rather than zeroes across his box score, and the Knicks still would have won. The injury was not a game-changing moment, although it likely made Popovich even more reluctant to push his stars knowing his rotation was down a key man. Still, this was a totally regrettable, albeit random, occurrence that should never, ever happen. It doesn't matter whether the courtside customer is Bloomberg, Spike Lee, Jay-Z, Barack Obama or the Queen of England: no fan's food or drink needs should ever influence a game or expose a player unnecessarily to injury risk. Not even quenching Justin Bieber's thirst is worth a sprained ankle, tweaked knee or broken fingernail.
The NBA clearly benefits from an all-access experience for courtside fans and an up-close-and-personal television experience thanks to courtside cameramen and photographers. But it's been said time and time again: there is such a thing as too close. How close is too close? When Jackson's rump is pressed against a waitress's head as he's falling backwards with no idea what's happening. That's too close. Preventing this particular type of situation from happening again should be a fairly easy process: no order taking during live game play. (Or, better yet, have a mobile ordering interface so that the rich and famous can make their purchases from their cellphones and Blackberries.) The bigger battles regarding the location of baseline cameras and photographers and the overall distance between front row seats and the sidelines deserve the attention of the league office.
• Raymond Felton, sidelined for an extended period of time with a finger injury, is definitely missed. His absence was especially felt early in this game with both teams slogging on offense. His jitterbug drive-and-kick penetrations and whip passes around the perimeter add a dynamic element, even if his shooting is a bit shaky and he succumbs to poor decisions every once in awhile. The Knicks started two veteran centers on Thursday -- Marcus Camby and Tyson Chandler -- so it's no great surprise that they came out choppy and robotic. Using Camby as a starter allowed coach Mike Woodson to keep Amar'e Stoudemire in a reserve united and maintained familiar roles for his other key bench guys, Smith and Steve Novak.
Going big early also set the table for a nice spark from reserve point guard Pablo Prigioni, who tied a season-high with nine assists in 27 minutes. The highlight of the night was a great garbage time alley-oop to Smith but his evening was full of set-up plays and nice reads that led to high-percentage Knicks baskets. His impact was also felt because Jason Kidd, starting as the only point guard in New York's bigger lineup, suffered through a second straight slow night. After failing to score on 0-for-5 shooting against the Blazers on Tuesday, Kidd finished with five points and three assists in 21 minutes. It will be interesting to watch how Woodson reacts with his lineups and rotations if Kidd's struggles continue. Even if his play stays in the tank, though, the Knicks face so many rotation-related variables that it's unlikely to be majorly concerning. Between now and the playoffs, the Knicks must: manage the return of Stoudemire from injury, reincorporate Felton and Rasheed Wallace once they're back healthy, and add guard Iman Shumpert back into the mix after a season-long absence following knee surgery. New York has the luxury, thanks to its hot start, of cruising for a bit free of expectations and panic until all the pieces are assembled.