By John Schmeelk
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At halftime Tuesday night, the Knicks led by 10 points. They had shot over 50 percent, led by a combined 14-of-22 shooting from Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis.
But following one trip down the floor in the third quarter, Anthony had to check himself out of the game after being unable to play on an ankle he sprained when stepping on a referee at the end of the first half. Less than three minutes later, Porzingis picked up his fourth foul and had to check out of the game. He played less than five minutes the rest of the way.
At that point, the Knicks led by four. The Celtics were playing inspired basketball and had turned up the intensity defensively. Without their star, Anthony, and their rookie phenom, Porzingis, hopes were low. The Garden was quiet. It was one of those games that just felt like it was going to turn into a loss, and likely a convincing one.
Then something happened. Arron Afflalo scored 10 points in the third quarter to keep the Knicks ahead. Robin Lopez put in seven points and grabbed four rebounds. Lance Thomas made five free throws and grabbed four rebounds. After three quarters, the team still held a four-point lead. A cautious optimism began to build that perhaps the Knicks might just figure out a way to hold onto a win.
The Celtics took their first lead in the fourth quarter with just over seven minutes to play. They went up by three with five minutes left, and it once again looked like the Knicks would run out of gas. Porzingis checked in with four minutes left, but quickly fouled out when he fouled Jameson Crowder on a 3-point shot that gave the Celtics the lead with 2:44 to play. Surely, the team would let the game slip away, right?
From that point on, however, the Knicks scored 14 points. Jerian Grant assisted or scored on every basket the Knicks made the rest of the way. He got the ball to Afflalo (10 points on 4-of-5 shooting in the fourth) and Lopez in the post for baskets after showing great patience with the ball. He found Derrick Williams on the fast break ahead of defenders for dunks. He scored on a tough floating banker around an excellent defender in Marcus Smart. He also went 4-for-4 from the line. Quite simply, he took over the game. The Knicks put the ball in his hands, and he made the right play.
How often will Afflalo shoot 8-of-12 in a half with 20 points? How often will Grant go for 10 points and six assists in the fourth quarter? Not often. Williams going for 15 points and 10 rebounds will not become commonplace. But that doesn't matter because the one night the team needed them to step up in order to win, they did it.
The Knicks looked markedly different without Anthony on the floor. Without his presence to draw attention and move defenders around, the ball moved much less rapidly and got stuck too often. The Knicks were fortunate Afflalo shot so well in the post, where he scored again and again on some very tough defenders. The Knicks needed someone to be able to score one on one.
The biggest takeaway from the game was the performance of Grant. He looked like the point guard that led Notre Dame to the Final Four last year. He was in command of the team, ran the high screen-and-roll well, got into the lane and either made his shots or found an open teammate. It takes rookie point guards, even older ones like Grant, some time to find their footing in the NBA. This is the most encouraging sign yet that he at some point this season might become someone the Knicks can count on to handle the ball and create offense.
In just 23 minutes, Grant scored 16 points, dished out eight assists and didn't turn the ball over against one of the better defensive backcourts in the NBA. He also hit a 3-pointer, a shot he has made only 15 percent of the time this season. The Knicks need an athletic point guard to do the things Grant did Tuesday night on a consistent basis. He probably isn't ready for that responsibility yet, but what we saw was encouraging. Coach Derek Fisher seems to have a growing trust in him, and I would expect Grant to see a few more minutes moving forward.
If the Knicks' best player, Anthony, is out for a few games with his sprained ankle, Grant will be important. The Knicks don't have many players that can create their own shot other than Anthony, so someone like Grant would need to get involved in the screen-and-roll to create shots in the paint and open jump shots. Porzingis will also have to shoulder more of a scoring load, as will Williams. Afflalo will become the primary elbow and post player, where he has shown flashes of being able to score in bunches. Everyone will have to help.
The Knicks had no business winning that game Tuesday night, but they came together and figured out a way. That's what good teams do. That's what playoff teams do.
The Knicks are back at .500, just one game out of a playoff spot. If they keep playing like they have the last three weeks, there might just be playoff basketball at the Garden this season after all.
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