Derek Fisher’s New York Knicks made a major statement in the Eastern Conference race on Tuesday night, taking a second straight game from the defending No. 1 seed Atlanta Hawks.
The Knicks suffered a tough loss to the Bulls to open 2016, but they came back and beat the Hawks in back-to-back games, first at Madison Square Garden, then again on Tuesday at Atlanta’s Phillips Arena.
“I thought our players basically took a lot of pride in themselves and I think responding to what they felt like was a poor finish in Chicago,” Fisher said. “[We] were able to win a couple games against a really good team.”
The Knicks led by 16 in the third quarter but saw the lead shrink down to two points in the final minute of play before Jose Calderon scored on a drive to the basket with 18 seconds remaining.
A big part of the win for Fisher’s crew was how the big-men dominated the paint. Robin Lopez and Kristaps Porzingis made it tough for Atlanta around the rim all night. Lopez finished the game with nine points and eight boards in 35 minutes while Porzingis put up 17 points and 11 rebounds in 31 minutes. Lopez, Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony combined to block five shots.
“Robin and Kris are always effective when they are on the floor together from a defensive standpoint. So much size and length in terms of protecting the paint and the rim,” D-Fish said. “That was really the difference. They did make more threes but closing off the paint was really helpful for us.”
A well-rounded game out of Anthony was another bright spot for the Knicks. Melo has been initiating the offense of late and is being more of a playmaker opposed to just a shooter. Melo finished the game with an impressive line of 23 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in 40 minutes of action.
D-Fish explained that Melo is learning how dominate the game in all facets and that it is translating into him becoming more of a leader on the court for this new group of guys. The 17th win of the season already matches last year’s entire win total for the Knicks, and Melo’s creative ability has been a big part of the improvement.
“I do think because he’s healthy and he’s enjoying the way we’re trying to play the game – I think he’s allowing space for his teammates to kind of find their games and what they do well,” Fisher said. “Now he’s starting to find out how he can dominate the game in other fashions. Rebounding, sharing the ball, those are the things that leaders do and I think he’s finding ways now to lead this group.”
Aaron Afflalo came back to earth after his 38-point outburst on Sunday against the Hawks, but he did match Melo for the team lead with 23 points of his own in 37 minutes. He also recorded seven rebounds and four assists while knocking down both of his attempts from three-point land.
Calderon also enjoyed a solid night too. Aside from sealing the game with his late drive in the waning seconds, he finished the game with seven points, six assists and three boards in 36 minutes of action.
The reserves came in clutch for Fisher as Derrick Williams continued his strong play of late. Williams led the bench with 15 points to go along with four rebounds. Lance Thomas and Langston Galloway chipped in with a combined 13 points to round out a solid effort from the second unit.
The tough stretch of games against the top teams in the Eastern Conference continues for Fisher and the Knicks (17-19) as they are slated to square off against the Miami Heat (21-13) Wednesday night on the road. Miami has won its last three games, most recently defeating the Indiana Pacers on Monday in overtime.
The Knicks lost both their games to the Heat this season, so a win tonight will go a long way for New York’s confidence as it looks to win its third straight game.
The contest will tipoff at 7 p.m. EST from American Airlines Arena and will nationally televised on ESPN. You can also catch the game on MSG.