A few seconds later, the first quarter ended.
The evening only grew more enjoyable Tuesday, as the lead ballooned and the faded. Despite a shaky fourth quarter, the secured a 131-118 victory and at 39-38 pushed past .500 for the first time in 16 days, looking like a playoff-worthy team at last.
“We’re starting to get it together,” Stoudemire said after the Knicks’ fourth straight victory.
Having secured their first postseason bid in seven years on Sunday, the Knicks’ mission was simplified: play hard, fine tune and stay healthy for the final six games. They had little trouble on any count against the struggling Raptors (21-56), who played without their starting point guard Jose Calderon.
Anthony was brilliant from the start, powering a 13-0 run to open the game, a lead the Knicks never relinquished. He had 19 points by halftime and finished with 23 — including five 3-pointers, his most as a Knick — in just 28 minutes. Stoudemire took over in the second half and finished with 23 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists. Chauncey Billups had 13 points and 9 of the Knicks’ 31 assists.
Stoudemire dunked ferociously and gestured playfully with the Madison Square Garden crowd. Anthony and Toney Douglas (28 points) rained 3-pointers. The offense flowed, the laughs followed and the lead grew to 29 points in the third quarter. The Knicks hit a season high with 78 first-half points and matched their season high with 131 points for the game.
The ease of the victory allowed Coach to give Anthony and Billups the fourth quarter off, resting their legs for the postseason. Anthony played just 28 minutes, Billups 26.
While the two stars rested, the reserves let the lead dwindle momentarily to 10 points. But Douglas and Derrick Brown responded with back-to-back fast-break baskets — Brown’s a powerful one-handed dunk — and the Knicks pulled away.
The winning streak is the Knicks’ longest since Anthony and Billups arrived in late February and it moved them within a half-game of sixth-place Philadelphia (40-38). They can overtake the with a victory Wednesday night in Philadelphia.
The victory was D’Antoni’s 100th as the Knicks’ coach, a milestone that took 241 games to reach — and seemingly just as many roster changes in a dizzying three-year stretch.
“I’ve been here about 10 years, right?” D’Antoni said with a laugh before tip-off. “Tell you what, those 100 wins were tough.”
The Knicks hit two other minor milestones Tuesday, winning their 23rd home game and their 39th game over all — their highest totals since the 2003-4 season, the last time they made the playoffs.
They have a chance at their first winning record since 2000-1, with road games left in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Indiana and Boston, and a home game against the East-leading .
Other than polishing the record and their game, and perhaps grabbing the sixth seed, the Knicks have little to accomplish in the regular season. They are almost certain to face either the or the in the first round, and that part is probably beyond their control.
“It’s all about us getting better coming down the stretch, going into the playoffs with some momentum, some confidence,” said Anthony, who tweaked his left knee on a bad landing. He said it was O.K.
There were times in the last two months when it appeared the reconstituted Knicks would never find a consistent rhythm. They faltered repeatedly against the ’s worst teams and recently lost nine games in a 10-game stretch.
Before the game, D’Antoni came as close as he has to admitting some misgivings about the Anthony deal — in particular the decision to radically alter the roster so late in the season.
“But the bottom line, either you’re going to be a team player, as we ask our players to do,” D’Antoni said, adding, “And if it’s better for the organization to do it, you do it. And it’s not, ‘Oh my, what’s going to happen to me?’ Well, you know what, this is the best for the team and best for the future of the New York Knicks; then if I’m supposed to be the coach, then I go along with what’s best for the Knicks. And I think it’s clear that it’s best for the Knicks.”
Mike D’Antoni became the sixth Knicks coach to reach 100 wins, joining Red Holzman (613), Joe Lapchick (326), (248), (223) and Hubie Brown (142).