If there was ever a "must win" game for the New York Knicks, that game was Wednesday night against the Bucks in Milwaukee. With the Bucks breathing down the Knicks' necks for the final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, New York has to do everything in its power to not only hold the Bucks down, but also make strides to catch a team like the 76ers for better seeding in the postseason.
Winners of four of their last five, the Bucks have certainly had a strong start to the regular season's final month and appear to finally be finding the right rhythm with new acquisition Monta Ellis on board. The team is peaking at exactly the right time.
But so are the Knicks. New York's gritty effort against the Bucks on Wednesday was just enough to propel them to a exhilarating 111-107 victory, granting them a two game lead over Milwaukee for the East's final spot in the playoffs. The team now only has eight games remaining in the regular season.
The contest was ugly in parts (mainly the defensive ones), as the Knicks struggled to contain Monta Ellis, who poured in the points for his highest output as a member of the Bucks, 34 points, on 14 for 25 from the field. Brandon Jennings, who is quickly becoming known as a Knicks' killer, added 22 points of his own, and Mike Dunleavy, who has torched New York before as well, bolstered his team off the pine with 19 points.
With Baron Davis playing through the pain and coping with various injuries, Iman Shumpert had some difficulty taking on both stellar offensive options of the Bucks' backcourt. It's understandable the rookie couldn't do it all on his own.
Though Ellis and Jennings did enough to frustrate the Knicks defensively and keep their own team in the game, New York certainly made adjustments as time went on, their defense becoming sharper later in the game. By turning up the intensity, the Knicks distracted Dunleavy into finishing with a 5 for 16 shooting performance on the night.
On a night that their defense fell victim to its own flaws, New York received a pick-me-up from an elevated offensive effort. Picking up the pace and moving the ball more effectively, the Knicks were not only paced by Carmelo Anthony's 32 points, but also struck while the iron was hot, pouring in 36 points during the game's first period.
That strong start set the tone for the game, as the Knicks received a bevy of positive contributions. Aside from Anthony's 32 points, Iman Shumpert added 16 points and 5 assists, and Landry Fields scored 11 points while dishing out a team-leading 6 assists as well.
The league-leaguer in field goal percentage, Tyson Chandler, had an utterly perfect night from the field, converting on all six shot attempts and sinking all seven of his free throws. The impressive outing added up to a nice 19 points from the big man. The offensive boost he provided the Knicks with was Chandler's highest points total since February 8th, when he scored a season-high 25 points in a win against the Wizards.
Clearly a night during which the Knicks' supporting cast came to play, Milwaukee's own hometown kid, Steve Novak, broke out of a slump to score 10 bench points, including 7 in the final quarter. Hitting two shots from long-range, he seemed to find his sweet shooting stroke once again.
Despite an elevated offensive effort from Knicks all around, the hero of the night was indeed the erratic swingman, J.R. Smith. A late addition to the Knicks this season, Smith honed in to his array of playoff experience and come up big in an even bigger moment, nailing a three-pointer that eventually won the Knicks the game.
Smith still struggled from the field, sinking just five of his thirteen shot attempts. That said, he received a vote of confidence from Coach Woodson following the game for the very fact that he came up in the clutch, despite everything else. He finished with 14 points and certainly put the stamp on the huge Knickerbocker win.
The game definitely wasn't the prettiest one of all, and not many have appeared so for the Knicks, following the losses of Amar'e Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin. That said, the team knows what's at stake and is displaying a gritty effort each and every night in an attempt to rack up the wins. The team is 6-3 since both players went down.
It's difficult to predict what kind of effort will ooze out of the Knicks on any given night. This is what causes so many fans to stay awake at night worrying about the team's playoff fate. However, it's of course, not how you start the game, but how you finish. Each player on the Knicks is playing with the type of effort that implies they know the team is fighting for its life.
As they power through the last eight games of the season, it's important to carry this type of effort and mentality into the playoffs along with them if they want any chance of advancing. The fire needs to stay lit.