The San Antonio Spurs entered Tuesday having won seven of their previous eight games, with the lone loss coming to a Cleveland Cavaliers club that's been one of the NBA's best teams since mid-January and was led by the fresh-dipped-in-flames Kyrie Irving. While Gregg Popovich's squad hasn't often resembled last year's NBA-championship-winning collective this season, they've looked sharper and more together of late, and were heavy favorites to continue their winning ways when they visited Madison Square Garden to take on the woeful New York Knicks, owners of the worst record in the NBA.
And yet ...
Playing without injured star Carmelo Anthony, point guard Jose Calderon, and wings Tim Hardaway Jr. and Cleanthony Early ... playing with a roster most charitably described as a who's who of "who's that?" ... and playing the Spurs at nearly full strength, save for the injured Manu Ginobili and Aron Baynes ... the Knicks shocked San Antonio, 104-100, in overtime on Tuesday.
If it seems odd to you that the worst team in the league would beat the defending champions this late in the campaign, it should, because it doesn't happen often. Or, y'know, ever:
And yet, the Knicks became outliers on Tuesday.
Knicks coach Derek Fisher got surprisingly strong performances from guards Langston Galloway (a career-high 22 points, four rebounds, four assists in a game-high 47 1/2 minutes) and Alexey Shved (21 points, 8-for-12 at the foul line, seven assists, three steals, three rebounds) to go with an impressive outing on the interior by journeyman Lou Amundson, who grabbed a career-high 17 rebounds while battling future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan for most of the night.
The nine-year veteran of 10 NBA clubs added 12 points to mark the sixth double-double of his career. During a laudatory postgame interview, MSG Network sideline reporter Tina Cervasio described the evening's proceedings as a "quintessential Lou Amundson-type of game." You'd be forgiven if you were unaware that type of game even existed.
Evidently, such a game involves a failed experiment with an 8-23 home record coming back from a 13-point third-quarter deficit against a Western Conference playoff team to take a mid-fourth-quarter lead on one of Cole Aldrich's legendary hook shots. It features Jason Smith trading late buckets with the greatest power forward of all time.
It includes the Knicks matching the Spurs' late-game execution, answering a nice after-timeout call by Popovich that sprung Marco Belinelli for a right-corner jumper with just over 24 seconds left by getting Shved penetrating into the teeth of the San Antonio defense for a dump-off pass to Amundson, who laid it in to tie the game at 96 with five seconds left.
It also features Kawhi Leonard being left virtually alone on the Spurs' final fourth-quarter possession, but failing to capitalize:
And, after San Antonio couldn't get anything to drop beside a Tony Parker runner 17 seconds into OT, it involves the Knicks sealing the deal on — of all things — a heady defensive stop by Shved, who broke up a lob lead pass from Duncan to Leonard that looked like it'd lead to a game-tying layup in the closing seconds:
Man, a lot of crazy stuff goes into a quintessential Lou Amundson-type of game. One thing that doesn't, though? A stellar effort from the opposition.
After the loss — which dropped San Antonio into seventh place in the West at 41-25, a full game behind the now-No. 5-seeded Dallas Mavericks and a half-game back of the No. 6 Los Angeles Clippers — Popovich didn't mince his words in expressing his irritation with his Spurs:
Pop's full broadside, courtesy of Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News:
They moved the ball better than we did. They played better team basketball. We didn't respect the game. We didn't respect our opponent. It was a pathetic performance. I hope that every player is embarrassed, not because we're "supposed to win the game," but it's about how you play the game. Their movement and unselfishness was great, their juice and competitiveness was better than ours, and they respected the game. They got rewarded for it. I'm happy for them.
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Those are some serious words, especially considering we know how Pop feels about being described as "happy."
The three-time Coach of the Year capped his diatribe with characteristic panache:
The Spurs now find themselves in unenviable territory, coming off an overtime loss and traveling to Wisconsin for a Wednesday night meeting with the defensively stalwart Milwaukee Bucks on the second night of a road back-to-back. Oddly enough, the Knicks, too, are in a bit of an unsettling position, albeit for a very different reason.
New York now has 14 wins, the same number as the West-worst Minnesota Timberwolves, and one fewer than the Philadelphia 76ers, who own the league's third-worst record. The Knicks also have 53 losses, one more than both the Wolves and Sixers. The Knicks' next two games come against Minny and Philly, New York's chief competition for the worst mark in the NBA and, thus, the highest likelihood of netting the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft lottery.
More importantly, though, while the team that finishes with the worst record still owns only a 25 percent shot at picking first, it's guaranteed to make one of the first four selections. Climb further up the standings, and you introduce more uncertainty into the mix, including the chance of falling out of the top five entirely.
Somewhat perversely, then, you could argue that the kind of fight, spirit, competitiveness and togetherness that the Knicks showed on Tuesday — a legitimately heartening sight that got the MSG faithful cheering in earnest — couldn't come at a worse time.
That's what many Knicks fans are afraid of, Coach. Sometimes, you can't win for losing ... or even for winning.
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