NEW YORK -- With just under a minute left in the first half of the Knicks' game against the Pacers on Friday, Indiana forward Danny Granger dribbled the ball around the perimeter. The Pacers trailed 45-31, and Granger hesitated for a moment before driving past Amar'e Stoudemire. J.R. Smith stepped up to meet him in the lane: charge.
It was the type of play that could've happened anywhere, a heady defensive effort that won't show up on a highlight reel. But it felt strangely significant: It was the type of hustle play that's been absent from the Knicks all season.
"For three and a half quarters I thought our defense was as good as it's been all year," said interim coach Mike Woodson. "It felt like playoff atmosphere defense."
Two days after Mike D'Antoni's sudden resignation shook the foundation of the Knicks' season, New York turned in its second straight defensive masterpiece in a 115-100 rout. And in the process, it continued to revive its previously dying playoff hopes.
The Knicks stifled the Pacers almost from start to finish. Tyson Chandler, the team's defensive leader, stuffed Roy Hibbert (who finished 2-of-10) in the first quarter to set the tone. Jared Jeffries sprinted from the three-point line to block another Hibbert shot, and Baron Davis stole a George Hill pass in the opening seconds of the second quarter. Carmelo Anthony, Stoudemire, Steve Novak and Iman Shumpert all notched steals throughout the night, and seldom-used Josh Harrellson even swatted a layup in the closing minutes. The Knicks simply suffocated the Pacers, something the stats abet: An Indiana team ranked fourth in the NBA in turnovers (13.5 per game) surrendered 12 in the first half alone.
In fact, the performance furthered an encouraging New York trend. The Blazers and Pacers shot a woeful 37.3 and 39.5 percent from the field in the past two games, well below their season averages of 42.5 and 41 percent, respectively. Whether a result of a change in coaching or mentality, the Knicks played with newfound staunchness. Even given Woodson's defensive-minded history -- each of his last three Atlanta teams ranked among the top 10 in scoring defense -- the results are somewhat remarkable for a group that allowed 107.5 points per game during its six-game losing streak.
"We denied wing entry passes," said Chandler. "We made post entry passes difficult. We trapped. We didn't let them breathe."
The pressure came from all angles. Often billed a collection of disparate superstars, the Knicks finally resembled something different: a team.
The offense was similarly balanced. By integrating isolation-based plays with D'Antoni's pick-and-roll sets, six players have averaged double-figures in the past two contests. That includes three-point sensations Smith and Novak, a catch-and-shoot duo quickly gaining distinction as the league's most explosive bench tandem. Against Indiana and Portland, they scored a combined 71 points while going 19-of-38 from beyond the arc.
"We got guys that are contributing from all areas on the court," said Stoudemire. "It's huge for us because it gives players like myself and Carmelo and Tyson and Jeremy a chance to rest and feel comfortable about our second unit."
It also provides another source of relief. Now that the incessant rumors and exhausting drama have faded, the Knicks are finally living up to their sky-high potential.
"This is an extremely talented team, maybe one of the most talented in the NBA, and they're playing with a renewed sense of urgency because of the coaching change," said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. "They're a force right now -- we have to play a great game to beat them."
Of course, expectations should be tempered. The Knicks remain four games under .500 and on the fringe of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. They're still adjusting to life under a new coach, a transition, in theory, that shouldn't happen overnight. New York's impressive turnaround could also be a byproduct of D'Antoni's unexpected departure, a wake-up call that won't last all season.
"Unfortunately sometimes it takes something dramatic to open up guys' eyes," said Chandler. "I think guys are responding to everything that happened. We're trying to make a positive out of a negative."
But while plenty of questions linger, from Jeremy Lin's role to Woodson's long-term future, the Knicks are finally playing with a sense of purpose. And with four of their next six games against teams with losing records and a brazen new commitment to defense, the future suddenly seems bright again.
"We're developing our chemistry," said Lin. "You can't really describe how much fun we were having during our seven-game win streak. That's where we're building towards right now."
In a season defined by drastic changes in momentum, alternating between meteoric highs and devastating lows, the Knicks are currently experiencing an upswing of hope. They travel to Indiana for a rematch on Saturday. Let's see if they can keep the ball rolling.
"I came here for one reason and for one reason only -- to try to win a title," said Woodson. "The only way you can do that is you gotta get in the playoffs. We have 22 games left. Anything is possible."