After yet another embarrassing loss, this time to the Nuggets at home on Friday night, the Knicks practiced for three hours Saturday afternoon, a marathon day for any NBA team.
The practice included a film session that differed from others this season. The players seized ownership as Jeff Hornacek and the coaching staff took a back seat. They discussed the defensive woes amongst themselves, searching for answers to the inconsistency that’s plagued them throughout this campaign.
The open dialogue translated into one of the Knicks’ best defensive performances of the year Sunday at the Garden in a 94-90 win over the Spurs, the team with the second-best record in the NBA. The Knicks held San Antonio to just 36.3% shooting from the field to claim their first home victory since Jan. 27 and halt a four-game losing streak.
“The trust came out tonight,” Hornacek said after the game. “That’s the right way to play basketball.”
The win gave the Knicks (23-33) a brief reprieve from one of the darkest and most drama-filled weeks in franchise history.
On Wednesday, Charles Oakley was forcibly removed from the Garden by security in an ugly scene. Over the next few days, Oakley and James Dolan engaged in a heated battle in the media about the true details of the incident. Dolan banned Oakley from the Garden on Friday.
On Sunday, Dolan hosted a number of ex-Knicks at MSG, including Latrell Sprewell. In total, nine former Knicks were honored during the win over the Spurs. The ex-players offered their congratulations to the current Knicks in the locker room after the game. Dolan was also present in the postgame locker room for just the second time this season.
“We had a big negative cloud above us for a while now, and we were letting that get to us,” said Courtney Lee, who totaled nine points and five assists in the victory. “Some guys can say they don’t pay attention to all this stuff. But at some point, you get tired of it. And so for us to come out and get a win against the Spurs is huge — maybe what we need to turn this thing around.”
Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks with 25 points on 9 of 21 shooting. He hit two jump shots in the final one minute and 30 seconds to put the finishing touches on the game. Derrick Rose scored 18 points while Kristaps Porzingis added 16.
But the game was won on the defensive end.
“Effort,” Rose said of what changed defensively. “Just effort.”
There were also schematic adjustments, though. During the film session, the players determined their big men were playing too soft against the pick and roll. Instead of pressing onto the ball-handler coming off the pick, the bigs were sinking into the paint, giving opposing players too much space.
That changed Sunday.
“We have athletic bigs,” said Lance Thomas, who played Sunday for the first time in a month after sitting out 14 games because of a fractured bone in his face. “We have guys who can move their feet, who, with long arms, can deflect passes. So we want them up a little bit more, and we want to just be more physical on defense. Teams have us on our heels when we catch the ball. No reason we shouldn’t do that to them, too.”
The alterations had a positive effect Sunday. But there’s a chance the defensive improvement is too little, too late.
Why did it take 56 games for this team to have the type of discussions necessary to find unity?
“I don’t know. But it happened, and it’s good that it did happen,” Lee said. “We’re moving forward.”