For the first three quarters of Tuesday night's game in Orlando, the Knicks looked more like a version of the team from the last few years than they looked like the one that had won their first four games of the season.
They were stagnant and isolation heavy on offense and their rotations were slow on defense, allowing Orlando open shots that they hit often enough to go up by six points at one point. The Magic led in the fourth quarter, the first time the Knicks have been pushed that hard this season and it seemed to wake them up from their slumber just in time.
Life returned on both sides of the court in time for the Knicks to outscore the Magic 20-9 over the final eight minutes and leave town with a 99-89 win. The Knicks forced seven turnovers in the final quarter, the offense stopped being about different players taking turns dominating the ball and the superior team got a win that they flirted with handing away a little too aggressively.
It helped that the Magic shooters went cold, but they weren't getting the same open shots that they were getting in the first three quarters in the game. Carmelo Anthony, who got an earful from Mike Woodson about his poor defense in the third quarter, was much more active on the defensive end down the stretch and his willingness to play on both ends continues to pay big dividends.
His play on offense was essential in the first half as he hit his shots and made the isolation game a bit easier to swallow. J.R. Smith played the same role in the third quarter, hitting his first five shots and keeping the Magic from building any kind of cushion as they outplayed the rest of the Knicks.
The whole offense was a series of isos by Melo, Smith or Ray Felton and it worked just about as well as it worked during the dismal final days of the D'Antoni era. The team wasn't turning the ball over (which means more sprints for the coaching staff), but they weren't picking up assists either and the offense suffered for it.
Once again, it was a well-timed burst by Jason Kidd that put the game into the Knicks' pocket for good. Kidd hit a three to put the Knicks up 82-80 with 8:44 to play in the fourth, he forced a jump ball on the next defensive possession, won the ensuing tap and then made a running layup about a minute later to spur the run that would carry the Knicks the rest of the way.
That run featured sharp pick-and-rolls that ended with Tyson Chandler dunking feeds from Felton and buckets from Smith and Anthony that came more in the flow of an offense that looked like the one from the first four games of the season. The journey wasn't always smooth, but the destination was where you wanted to be all along.
Now for the cautionary part of the tale. It's nice to have a Knicks team that's good enough to play well for about 10 minutes and still win a game by double-digits, but this effort ain't going to cut it when you play teams that aren't the Magic.
Teams like the Spurs and Grizzlies, who will be on the slate Thursday and Friday, aren't going to be as forgiving if the Knicks play listlessly and the undefeated dreams will come crashing to a halt. Woodson will likely deliver that message to his team before they get to San Antonio and they'd be advised to heed it if they want to continue living life as the NBA's pacesetter.