New York Knicks 128, San Antonio Spurs 115: How many points can you score in an empty gym?

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MADISON SQUARE GARDEN — On June 25, 1999, the New York Knicks retired into the drab bowels of Madison Square Garden having scored 77 points against the San Antonio Spurs in game five of the NBA Finals. Several years later, after a few coaching changes, a few roster overhauls and a league-wide rule change that opened up the game, the New York Knicks retired into the drab bowels of Madison Square Garden having scored 72 points against the San Antonio Spurs.

It was halftime.

The Knicks defeated the Spurs 128-115 on Tuesday night in a game that more closely resembled a high-tempo shootaround than a highly anticipated regular season match-up. Gregg Popovich often says games come down to who ends up making more shots, the kind of deflective truism he has steadily mastered over the years. However, I think when he says that, the underlying assumption is that both teams will be trying to stop the other from making those shots.

The Spurs have always had a protean quality to them. People often say that they make teams play to their pace and approach, but it’s not uncommon for the Spurs to adopt any given team’s particular style and merely execute it better. Historically, the Spurs have run and gunned alongside D’Antoni-led squads just as often as they have tried to gum up the gears. Popovich admitted as much in his post-game press conference, recalling former Spurs-Suns contests in which both teams would end up scoring over 140 points by the time the final buzzer sounded (although, if the score ever drifted that high, it was because that final buzzer came after one or two overtime periods).

The Spurs’ ceaseless ability to adapt — an ability which has shined as brightly this season as any — caused me to continually cling to hope even when I should have resigned myself to the loss far sooner. The Spurs spent much of the second half within two or three possessions of tying the game and at one point closed the gap to three points. I kept waiting for that string of unanswered three-pointers, that decisive turnover, but they never came.

The defensive failures are almost too numerous to detail. I expected the team to make some defensive adjustments during half time, but no matter how many nobs the Spurs turned or bolts they tightened, the water kept pouring. Even when the Spurs forced the Knicks out of the paint and away from the perimeter, New York made their mid-range jumpers anyways. My notes for the entire third quarter consisted of nothing but the words, “I have no idea.” (One or two expletives may have been redacted from that sentence.) Gregg Popovich put it more concretely.
“The New York Knicks kicked our ass,” he said.
  • There’s no reason to blame this loss on anything other than defensive effort, but if I had to point to an offensive shortcoming, it would be the Spurs perimeter shooting. San Antonio is one of the top three-point shooting teams in the league, and yet they only managed to make 27.8 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc. If that figure is closer to 40 percent, the Spurs very well may have won this game, despite the numerous reasons they deserved to lose.
  • I’ll give credit where credit is due: The Knicks did a reasonably good job defending the perimeter. At the very least, their perimeter defense appeared dogged compared to San Antonio’s. They closed out on shooters swiftly and decisively, and often forced Gary Neal, George Hill and Manu Ginobili into taking hastily released long two-pointers instead of rhythmic, composed three-pointers.
  • That’s not to say the Knicks defense exactly qualified as stifling. 115 points is 115 points. In the words of Gregg Popovich, “I wouldn’t say that there’s a line outside of the arena to buy either one of our defensive playbooks.”
  • When you see the two of them interact, it’s immediately clear how much Gregg Popovich appreciates Gary Neal. Popovich took more time to speak with him during the game than any other person on the court. It reminded me of the in-game relationship Popovich had with DeJuan Blair last season. I was also excited to see how vocal and encouraging Neal is while on the bench.
  • Speaking of DeJuan Blair, his effort on the offensive end was a lone bright spot in a game I am looking forward to forgetting. He showed tremendous dexterity around the rim, most memorably when he sent a looping, wide-armed put-back, laced with a bit of English, dripping through the rim. He also posterized Ronny Turiaf (who was not amused, and drew a technical) in the second quarter, only to steal the ball from Wilson Chandler and take it end-to-end for a layup on the following play.
  • Jersey Shore’s Pauly D had courtside seats at the game, which I know Tim Varner will be excited to hear. He loves Jersey Shore.
  • Don’t be too overwhelmed by the earth-shattering insight I’m about to hit you with: The pace and tone of Tuesday’s game is not going to make Wednesday’s game against the Celtics any easier. I just blew your mind.