Thanks to the Earth recently beginning another revolution around the sun, everything feels different even when little has actually changed; the New York Knicks are no exception to the rule, and their first two games of the new year give off the impression that they are a different, and improved team. First, there was the surprising victory over the San Antonio Spurs where the Knicks went on the road and took down one of the best teams in the NBA. Then there was Friday's contest against the Houston Rockets, coming on the second night of a slate of back-to-back games, where the Knicks once again performed admirably.
Although two games still represent a small sample size, all indications seem to point that the level of play of the Knicks is increasing. Unfortunately for the Knicks, all the impressions of their elevated efficiency is probably just noise as the way they battled the Rockets on Friday was actually nothing new. In multiple ways, the final statistics for both teams mirrored their production during the first meeting. Squint hard enough and one would be hard pressed to find any significant differences between their meeting on November 14 and their rematch yesterday.
Once again, when the two teams met around halfcourt to ready themselves for the opening tip, they agreed to make defense optional in the game. No, not even the word option fully expresses the disdain both teams showed for stopping their opponent from scoring. Rather, the Knicks and Rockets collectively decided to pretend as if defense did not exist in their reality.
The result was a game not only in which both teams reached 100 points, but one in which most of their possessions ended in the scoring of at least one point. When the final whistle blew, the Rockets had scored 115.5 points per 100 possessions while the Knicks largely kept pace by scoring 113.2 points per 100 possessions; both offensive marks are well above the average offensive output in the NBA this season.
The Rockets offensive explosion was driven by the usual suspect, James Harden, who played brilliantly on offense, at least when he was not turning the ball over. Harden scored 37 points on 19 field goal attempts and 12 free throws as he was able to put together a 72.2 true shooting percentage and produce 139 points per 100 possessions despite turning the ball over five times.
For the Knicks, the offensive star of the game was Iman Shumpert, who picked up right where he left off in Thursday's game against the Spurs, and scored a team-high 26 points. Once again, Shumpert shot lights out from three-point range, converting on all six of his long-range attempts, and finished the game having made nine of his 14 field goal attempts and both of his free throw attempts. His dividend for such a spectacular shooting performance was being credited with producing 186 points per 100 possessions.
Embarrassingly for the Knicks, in a game where points were basically being gifted by the Rockets, they found themselves unable to score a basket in the waning seconds of the game. On one of the final possessions of the contest with the scored knotted at 100-100, Knicks Beno Udrih and J.R. Smith attempted two ill-advised three pointers.
Udrih then compounded the initial error of attempting a three-point shot by recklessly trying to chase down the rebound off Smith's missed three-pointer, only to foul Rockets point guard Aaron Brooks and send Brooks to the free throw line. Brooks calmly connected on both of his two free throw attempts, giving the Rockets a 102-100 lead with 0:17 left in the game.
With 17 seconds left on the clock, the Knicks found themselves with an opportunity to at least send the game to overtime, only to waste it with two missed field goal attempts, the first by Shumpert, who missed one too many shots for the Knicks' liking. A Knicks offensive rebound gave them another crack at scoring, but Udrih's shot went in and out, making it worthless to the Knicks' chances of extending the game.
Offense was the name of the game on Friday, no surprise given how defense-intolerant both teams can be at times, and the Knicks simply found themselves on the wrong side of an offensive shootout with the Rockets for the second time this season.