But the sensation of heightened stakes was apparent Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, where the two teams met for the first time since each drastically altered the makeup of its franchise with blockbuster trades in February.
The Knicks overcame a sluggish first half in which they trailed by as many as 16 points to come back and .
The victory puts the Knicks (37-38) three and a half games ahead of eighth-place Indiana and four and a half games ahead of ninth-place Charlotte in the Eastern Conference.
, who finished with 39 points in the Knicks’ overtime win over Orlando on Monday night, flourished again, scoring another 39 points — including 20 in the third quarter — to go with 10 rebounds and 5 assists.
Chauncey Billups added 33 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists. Amar’e Stoudemire finished with 23.
“They did what they needed to do,” Coach said of his team’s big three, who combined for 95 points. “They were looking for people, and I’m fine with that, as long as you’re not forcing it.”
The Knicks are 9-12 since acquiring Anthony and Billups.
In the fourth quarter, Billups was fouled on a 3-point attempt with 2 minutes 54 seconds remaining and hit all three free throws to tie the score at 114-114. The teams then combined for five missed shots before Anthony hit a spot-up jumper that gave the Knicks a 116-114 lead.
Deron Williams, playing his first game since March 18, missed a running jumper from the right side with 4.9 seconds remaining that would have tied the score. He finished with 22 points and 8 assists in 37 minutes.
“Got a good look, just kind of rushed it and it came up short,” Williams said.
To an extent, the feistiness of the game was an indicator of the growing rivalry, previously nonexistent, between these two teams.
The Nets’ Sasha Vujacic on Tuesday called the game the biggest of the team’s season, and Nets Coach Avery Johnson conceded before the game that the opponent and site had played a role in Williams’s decision to return after missing six games with an injured wrist.
The rivalry, which had begun in the preseason as a series of relatively playful jabs — innocuous posturing in the news media and large-scale billboards in enemy territory — has become more serious since February, when the teams maneuvered against one another to secure the services of Anthony.
The Knicks won that battle, also adding Billups, but at a considerable cost.
Days later, the Nets, who are set to move to Brooklyn in the 2012-13 season, counterpunched by acquiring Williams, an All-Star point guard.
Since then, the teams have been beset by many of the same problems.
Before the game, D’Antoni was asked his impressions of Williams’s play. As D’Antoni spoke for the next 53 seconds about the difficulty of integrating an injured star point guard into a new system, it became clear he was talking about Billups.
When the reporter clarified that he had been asking about Williams, D’Antoni laughed and apologized.
“But, yeah, just, ditto,” he said.
Billups said after the game that he was fully recovered from a deep thigh injury that forced him to miss six games this month.
“I’m still just trying to get a pace, get a flow, and let guys know what flow I am playing,” he said.
The Knicks won despite walking off the court at halftime to a chorus of boos from the home fans after conceding 68 points.
Brook Lopez exposed the Knicks’ lack of interior defense time and again, scoring 22 points in the first half with one easy basket after another. He finished with 26 points and 9 rebounds.
“They had 18 second-chance points,” D’Antoni said. “You can’t do that.”
But the Knicks invigorated the crowd by opening the third quarter on a 12-3 run that brought them within a point. A goaltending call on a Toney Douglas layup with less than a minute remaining in the quarter gave the Knicks their first lead of the game, 91-90.
The Knicks’ comeback occurred largely without the influence of Stoudemire, who continued his recent run of erratic play.
Despite getting off to a quick start and scoring 19 points in the first half, Stoudemire added only 4 points after halftime and finished with a single rebound.
“Glad this month is over,” Stoudemire said. “But we closed it out with a win, which is important for us.”