Yet playing only their 10th game of this lockout-shortened season and just their second opponent with a winning record, the passed it Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.
With defense. And despite subscribing to their own version of Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan down the stretch on offense: nine turnovers and nine missed shots from the floor in the last nine minutes.
The Knicks’ defense, though, held the fort in an 85-79 victory over the , who had won six straight to storm to the top of the Atlantic Division but were also playing for the third straight night and the fifth time in six days.
So, unlike the Knicks, who got a day off after beating a third straight sub-500. opponent Monday (Charlotte), the 76ers had reason to be cooked.
Instead, they tested Coach ’s team sternly, wiping out all but 2 points of a 16-point first-half deficit before the end of the third quarter, then all but 4 of a subsequent 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter, mostly because of their league-best defense.
But after slapped a tourniquet on the Knicks’ third-quarter wounds, scoring 10 points in one stretch, the defense bailed out the home team.
It held the 76ers, third in the league in scoring, to more than 22 points less than their average of 101.6 points per game. It stood firm in those final nine minutes, during which the Knicks managed only seven free throws.
“We’re starting to buckle down on the defensive end,” Anthony said. “We’re starting to trust one another. We’re having each other’s backs out there.”
Plus, he said, he and his teammates are following the defensive lead of the rookie Iman Shumpert, whose 5-for-15, 10-point, 3-assist, 4-turnover line didn’t measure his contribution to the Knicks’ fourth straight victory.
“Iman puts a lot of pressure on the ball and he can do a lot of things,” D’Antoni said.
“What he’s bringing to the game right now, believe it or not, we’re feeding off of him, as a rookie,” Anthony said. “For me to say that, that says a lot.”
D’Antoni said: “Other guys are buying in. For us to win, they have to keep that intensity where it is and we will get the offense right.”
Anthony, who needed 24 shots to score 27 points, concurred, although the offensive ineptitude was not a surprise against a team that entered the night with the league’s best scoring and field-goal defense, allowing 85.6 points per game on 39.2 percent shooting.
But it was the Knicks’ defense that surprised 76ers Coach Doug Collins, who called it “the best defense I’ve seen them play. It’s not anywhere near what I saw from the three games I watched prior. This was a totally different team tonight that we played against than what I saw on tape.”
Still, the Knicks had to again win ugly. After a dunk by Amar’e Stoudemire (20 points, 10 rebounds) on a Shumpert feed with 9 minutes 2 seconds left gave the Knicks a 17-point lead, the offense bumbled and stumbled to the finish line.
The defense, however, hung on to produce the Knicks’ first victory against a winning team this season. They lost Dec. 29 in Los Angeles, 99-82, to the Lakers.
“It only matters because Philly’s playing well,” D’Antoni said of the victory’s significance. “They’re in our division, so it counts as two. But it’s only our 10th game.”
The Knicks did keep Philadelphia from becoming only the second team this season to sweep a three games-in-three-nights stretch. Oklahoma City (where the Knicks play Saturday) did it Jan. 6-8.
“We’ve got to get our offense better than that,” D’Antoni said. “We can’t keep the game in the 70s and think that we’re doing what’s right. We can get a lot better offensively — and we will.”
Anthony said: “Nothing is easy. We’re winning games, they’re ugly wins, we’ll take it.
“I’m not too concerned about the offensive end. I’m more proud of what we’re doing on the defensive end, stopping guys.”
Landry Fields, the second-year Knicks guard who has struggled with his shot this season, making 19.2 percent of his 3-point attempts, began the game as the Knicks’ top plus-minus player at plus 48. The rookie big man Josh Harrellson was second at plus 47. … The veteran big man Jared Jeffries confirmed what Mike D’Antoni had been saying. If he does not have a setback with the right calf injury that has sidelined him since the season opener, Jeffries expects to play Saturday. … Philadelphia played without the starting center Spencer Hawes, who has a lower back injury.