Back in November, coming from way back late in the fourth quarter to beat the Spurs on the road was seen as a major sign that this year's Knicks team had a little something special to it.
It hasn't been two months since that game, but there was still a need of a reminder of that fact. The Knicks were 5-5 in their last 10 games and they had gotten away from the two things -- stout defense, a well-balanced offense -- that spurred them to their 16-5 start.
Those things came back in full force on Thursday night as the Spurs visited Madison Square Garden and left with a loss that was less painful but more emphatic than that comeback special from early in the season. The Knicks grabbed the lead early, held it throughout and blew the game open in the third quarter on their way to a 100-83 win.
Mike Woodson opted to start Marcus Camby instead of starting Kurt Thomas and playing him for two minutes, a move that led to an instant change in the team's defensive look. Challenging players on the perimeter no longer meant leaving the lane wide open for penetration because Camby and Tyson Chandler were both available to protect the hoop from unwelcome intruders.
That meant that the Spurs were forced to be a perimeter team and it's never a bad strategy to force teams to beat you by making outside shots. The Spurs got their fair share of open looks -- rotations still weren't ideal -- but they were clearly playing the offensive game that the Knicks wanted them to play, something that has happened pretty rarely of late as the Knicks' defensive performance sank.
A defensive revival is an excellent thing, especially when it is matched with the full-fledged return of the well-spaced, balanced offense from the early weeks of the season. The Knicks have had to deal with a rotating cast of characters on offense thanks to injuries over the last stretch, something that seemed to make them more reliant on Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith for offense than they were when things were going swimmingly.
Anthony and Smith were still the two leading scorers on Thursday, but they weren't scoring 73 percent of the team's points as they did in Tuesday's 105-100 loss to Portland. They combined for 43 points, while the rest of the Knicks filled in the rest of the scoresheet thanks in large part to Pablo Prigioni.
Because he's 35, it's hard to think of Prigioni as a rookie as you watch him struggle with some aspects of the NBA game and it is even harder when you see him actually play well. His guile when it comes to stealing inbounds passes is something you just don't see very often and, on Thursday, he ran the offense with the kind of efficiency (nine assists, one turnover) that the Knicks played with at their best this season.
Prigioni also threw the pass that accounted for the evening's entry in the "J.R. Smith is the most astounding basketball player on the entire planet" category. The selection is an alley-oop off a pass that didn't appear to be meant to turn into an alley-oop that Smith somehow caught in the air and turned into a reverse jam that set his teammates into a celebration that made it clear that even extraordinarily talented human beings aren't supposed to be able to do things like this.
The J.R. highlight reel has never gone away, but the rest of the early fun from this Knicks season got a bit muddled over the last 10 games. It came back in fine fashion on Thursday night and an extended stay would treat the Knicks just fine.