To call the Knicks' 105-101 win on Thursday night in San Antonio their best win of the season doesn't even come close to doing it justice. For the downtrodden Knicks faithful—your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to see decent basketball—this game was manna from heaven.
Not only did the Knicks beat the defending Western Conference champs in their own building, they did it with the help of an old fan favorite who had completely fallen off the radar in December: Iman Shumpert.
Shumpert matched Carmelo Anthony with a team-high 27 points. Based on recent performance, those 27 points were nothing short of astonishing.
Per SB Nation's Seth Rosenthal:
Iman Shumpert had 27 tonight. He had 26 in his last six games combined.— Seth Rosenthal (@seth_rosenthal) January 3, 2014
But it was not only the points; it was the way Shumpert scored them. He dominated this game from beginning to end, setting the tone in the first quarter with 10 quick points and making two of the Knicks' final three field goals of the game to keep the Spurs at bay.
The defining moment of the game—and Shumpert's season—came with 24 seconds left in the game. With the score tied, the Knicks ran their usual fourth-quarter offense—little-to-no ball movement resulting in a hurried, off-balance jumper from Anthony.
The Knicks have lost countless games by running such plays exclusively down the stretch. Every opponent knows what's coming, and every opponent knows how to stop it. Anthony missed, and the Spurs were poised to take possession and play for the win with the shot clock turned off.
And then Shump happened...
There is no way the Knicks could have hoped for an offensive rebound on that possession. Mike Woodson had removed Tyson Chandler from the game in favor of Andrea Bargnani—perhaps the worst-rebounding 7-footer in the game. The best Knicks rebounder left on the court was the guy shooting the ball, Anthony. The Shumpert tip-in was the finest clutch play of the Knicks' season, bar none.
There was a time when such feats of athletic grace were the norm from the 23-year-old Shumpert. He was the rarest of Knicks—a homegrown starter. From his rookie season, he wowed the MSG crowd with his thunderous dunks and charmed the demanding New York fans with his confident, fun-loving personality.
The peak of Shumpert's career came during last year's playoffs, when he emerged as perhaps the Knicks' second-best player after Anthony.
Although the Knicks were eliminated by the Indiana Pacers, Shumpert drew the praise of Pacers' team adviser (and former Knicks GM) Donnie Walsh.
Per Marc Berman of the New York Post:
Iman had all the ingredients to be a very good NBA guard, a very good athlete. [He’s got] great body intelligence, confidence and ambition. He was a great defender already and will get better with experience. His shooting was not broken but needed work. He obviously did it and has become a very dependable shooter. He will have a terrific career.
But the 2013-14 season has been a disaster for Shumpert. His three-point shooting percentage dropped from 40.2 percent to just 30.5 percent entering Thursday. He has been the subject of numerous trade rumors throughout the season, per Ian Begley of ESPN. There have even been reports of serious discord between Shumpert and the Knicks' front office.
On the court, the tension was clearly getting to Shumpert. He looked unsure of himself, whether shooting an open jumper or running the fast break. Coach Mike Woodson took every opportunity to show his displeasure whenever Shumpert made a mistake. The atmosphere was poisonous, and Shumpert was suffering the effects.
What changed for Shumpert coming into Thursday? It's not clear. But he was more aggressive than he had been all year.
The Mike Woodson-led Knicks will never feature Shumpert in the offense, no matter how well he's shooting. Even after scoring 16 points in the first half, Shumpert was once again marginalized in the third quarter.
|0:00-24:00 (24 minutes)||14:02||6-8||16|
|24:01-43:00 (19 minutes)||12:07||1-2||3|
|43:01-48:00 (5 minutes)||5:00||3-3||8|
It wasn't until those final five minutes that he found the ball in his hands. And he did everything he could to make those precious few touches count.
A Better Game Plan
Reigning Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith has become Public Enemy No. 1 among the Knicks fans. The two of them needed to adjust, and for one night at least, they did exactly that.
Smith might not have set the world on fire with his defense, but he did help the Knicks in one important way: He didn't shoot.
Smith took only five field-goal attempts in the win. Per Basketball Reference, the Knicks are now 4-3 when he takes fewer than eight free throws in a game. That might not sound like much, but they are 4-15 when Smith takes nine or more shots in a game.
There was only one person affiliated with the Knicks who was angry with Smith's more responsible shot selection.
Per Newsday's Al Iannazzone:
J.R. Smith, whose brother was cut Tuesday, has only taken 1 shot in 15 min. Woodson screamed to JR after last turnover, "Shoot the ball."— Al Iannazzone (@Al_Iannazzone) January 3, 2014
Woodson wasn't quite as bad as usual, though. He did limit the minutes of Andrea Bargnani, whose defensive liabilities are still the stuff of jokes.
Even with Bargnani on the bench, the Knicks gave up far too many open three-pointers; if the Spurs had simply hit their usual percentage of open jumpers, they would have won easily. It's quite possible that the Knicks will return to their losing ways as early as Friday night, in Houston.
But this is still a moment to savor, Knicks fans. J.R. Smith didn't shoot the Knicks in the foot for once, and Iman Shumpert played the kind of game he's capable of playing. Only time will tell if this is a one-game blip or the start of Shumpert's resurgence.