So it seemed only right when J. R. Smith — flawed, hopeful, often maddening — ended his disorienting night with the shot that beat the on Wednesday night and sent the home as the happy owners of eighth place.
Smith’s 3-pointer with 1 minute 4 seconds left gave the Knicks a 108-107 edge, a lead they never relinquished as they held on for a 111-107 victory.
“Definitely the biggest shot I’ve made since I’ve been here so far,” Smith said softly. “Especially on the road, in this atmosphere. A team that we are batting for that eighth spot with. It’s big for us.”
The victory kept the Knicks (30-28) from falling into an eighth-place tie and losing the season series tiebreaker. Instead, they emerged with a two-game lead over the Bucks (28-30) and firm control over their destiny as they navigate the final eight games of the regular season.
led the way with 32 points and 10 rebounds and hit a huge turnaround jumper down the stretch as the game tipped back and forth. But it was Smith who played the unlikely savior after Luc Mbah a Moute’s second-chance layup gave Milwaukee a 107-105 lead.
Smith had been erratic, even by Smith’s standards, missing 8 of 12 shots up to that point, and committing several glaring errors. But Coach Mike Woodson stuck with him, then called a pick-and-roll for Smith and Anthony that created the winning shot.
“I need J. R.,” Woodson said. “I’m a big believer in J. R. I told him that after the game. I’m in his corner and I’m going to do everything I can to see that he’s successful for this ball club. I think he has a talent and he showed it at the end of the game.”
The Bucks disintegrated down the stretch, missing eight of their last 10 shots, including all five attempts after Smith’s 3-pointer. The Knicks put the game away at the foul line, with two free throws from Steve Novak and one from Iman Shumpert.
“It feels great,” Smith said of Woodson’s confidence in him. “He’s been sticking with me a lot for the last two games. Over and over, he’s been showing his confidence in me.”
Milwaukee’s flashy guards caused trouble for the Knicks all night, with Monta Ellis slashing his way to 35 points and Brandon Jennings adding 22. But Ellis, Jennings and Mike Dunleavy all missed 3-pointers down the stretch, and the Bucks blew an 8-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Anthony was dominant all night, despite foul trouble, despite physical defense from Mbah a Moute, Larry Sanders and Carlos Delfino, and despite two hard fouls — one to his injured right wrist, one to his left fingers, which so angered him that he spiked the ball and earned a technical foul.
The stakes were well defined before tip-off. The Philadelphia 76ers (31-27) had beaten Toronto to further secure their hold on seventh place.
The players seemed to welcome the moment. In an otherwise quiet locker room, the only audible distraction was Frank Sinatra, crooning, “New York, New York” from Anthony’s mobile device as Anthony stretched out on a training table.
Neither team played much defense in the first half, which ended in a 62-62 tie after a series of fast-break dunks and layups and some moments of preposterously sloppy play.
The Knicks were scorching to start the game, making 14 of 16 shots and as they raced to a 14-point lead. Their bench squandered it just as quickly, allowing the Bucks a 26-8 run in a seven-minute stretch.
Smith was not the only culprit, but his mistakes were perhaps the most egregious. He fouled Dunleavy on a 3-point try in the second quarter (an offense he committed again in the third quarter). He rushed a bad jumper after Bucks fans tricked him into believing the shot clock was running down (with a “five, four, three…” chant). Smith then missed a layup, committed a pointless loose-ball foul and got his jumper blocked before Woodson finally yanked him, with the Knicks trailing by 42-38.
In those critical final minutes, no one needed a shot at redemption more than Smith.
“Without a doubt,” he said, conceding, “I wasn’t having the best game all around. My individual defense was terrible tonight. It’s something I’ve got to keep working on and get better at.”
Although the turnaround was tight, the Knicks’ 22 ½-hour gap between tip-offs — from 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday to 7 p.m. on Wednesday — was not the shortest this season. A number of teams, including the Nets, have played games scheduled just 22 hours apart, which is the minimum permitted under N.B.A. rules. The Knicks had just 20 hours, however, from the final buzzer in Chicago to tip-off on Milwaukee. “Ain’t nothing we can do about it,” Mike Woodson said. “It’s been that way all season. Our guys understand it.” … Jared Jeffries, who is playing despite a chronic injury in his right knee, is under a 15-minute-a-game limit, Woodson said.