James Johnson? James Johnson!
This was one of the craziest and most improbable games I've watched, let alone attended. Before we dig deeper, let me summarize the craziness of the game:
1. The Kings scored 71 points in the first half.
2. The Kings led by as much as 27 points in the first half and were up 21 at halftime.
3. The Kings proceeded to entirely lose the lead and fall behind by four points in the final minutes.
4. James Johnson, 0 for 11 from three for the year, hits the game winning three at the buzzer.
The only sequence above that I can look at and make sense of is the fact that the Kings blew a big lead, because that happens all the time. But as for the other three, I'm not sure I'd believe it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, in person.
The game started out with another surprise, and it wasn't the fact that DeMarcus Cousins was back or that he was starting. No, instead Keith Smart brought Isaiah Thomas back to the starting lineup over Aaron Brooks. The Knicks broadcast apparently reported that Thomas was starting because Brooks missed shootaround, but that is not the case. Thomas appears to have won back the starting gig, at least for now.
New York was without a lot of key pieces tonight, namely Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton. Without them, the Knicks starting lineup seemed very offensively deficient, and it wasn't long before J.R. Smith was summoned. Smith has had big games against the Kings in the past and this game was no different. For a while in the first quarter, he was carrying the Knicks. Sacramento was still able to get out to a double digit lead early however.
Things really started to click in the second quarter though. The bench unit came in, featuring Aaron Brooks and Jimmer Fredette in the backcourt, and shot the lights out. They simply could not miss. Brooks scored 8 points and Jimmer scored 15, both moving the ball around well. Aaron Brooks even had a huge transition defense block which led to a big Jimmer three on the other end.
The Knicks managed to chip away at the lead in the final minute of the half thanks to three triples, including one by Kidd at the buzzer, but Sacramento still seemed in charge with a 21 point lead. The Kings at that point were shooting well above 50% from the field and were absolutely scorching hot from outside, making 10 of 15 threes. Common sense dictated that the Kings could not keep up that pace, and common sense prevailed.
The Kings regressed to the mean hard in the second half. There was a return to isolation basketball as the Knicks defense tightened and cut off the Kings first and second options, and New York simply kept playing their inside-out game to perfection. The success of the first half was heavily dependent on all the shots Sacramento was making; The defense still managed to give up 50 points. So with the defense still lacking and the offense not clicking, New York mounted their comeback. By the end of the quarter, Sacramento's 21 point lead was just six and New York had the ball to start the fourth. Things were not looking great.
The game continued to go sour for most of the fourth as well. The Kings were getting repeatedly rebuffed when they tried to go inside, bad shots were taken, and those threes that were falling in the first half stopped falling. The Knicks smelled blood in the water and they went after it. Jason Kidd's three pointer midway through the quarter gave New York the lead at 97 to 95, prompting an almost full lineup change for Sacramento.
A couple three pointers by Isaiah Thomas and Francisco Garcia were able to keep the Kings in the game, but Sacramento just wasn't getting any real stops. They also weren't taking the best shots themselves on offense. DeMarcus Cousins in particular had a couple of atrocious possession in the fourth quarter where he tried to post up Tyson Chandler and ended up throwing wild off-balance shots that had no chance of going in.
At the 2:50 mark, Chris Copeland hit a jumper to put New York up 105-101. Over the next two minutes, New York and Sacramento traded bricks and turnovers, including missed wide open threes from both teams. Isaiah Thomas finally broke the stalemate with 33 seconds left when he drove by Jason Kidd to attack the basket and drew the foul when Kidd pushed him in the back. Sacramento was lucky the refs caught the push, but they did and Thomas sank both free throws. New York called a timeout to draw a play and Keith Smart subbed in James Johnson for Marcus Thornton for defensive purposes.
The final play New York ran was a simple one that they've run to perfection multiple times this year and even during this game: A high pick and roll between Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler. Chandler came up top to set the screen for Kidd and then immediately went to the basket where Kidd attempted to throw a lob to him. Fortunately, DeMarcus Cousins completely redeemed himself for his horrible offensive possessions earlier in the quarter by rotating back with Chandler and using his long arms to snatch the pass out of the air. At this point there was about 16 seconds left in the game.
Cousins got the ball quickly out to a streaking Thomas, who had both Johnson and Salmons with one Knicks defender. Thomas passed to Johnson who passed right back to Isaiah, and Isaiah popped up for the mid-range jumper. J.R. Smith came back just in time to affect the shot, which missed, but there was James Johnson for the offensive rebound in the midst of four Knicks. Johnson's tip attempt missed, but he got his hand on it to tip it out to Isaiah at the top of the key with about 6 seconds left. Isaiah drove into the lane and found John Salmons in the corner. Salmons had been open but Jason Kidd quickly came over and Salmons quickly dished the ball out to James Johnson at the top of the three point line. The pass was nearly intercepted by Steve Novak, but Johnson caught the ball and with no time to do anything else, flung it up as time expired. It went in, the Kings won, and the crowd went nuts.
Here's video of the full final sequence:
It was a crazy finish to a crazy game, and one I will not soon forget. Johnson deserves credit not only for the shot, but for keeping the ball alive and simply having a very good game before then. His 17 points were a season-high and he added 7 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal and a block to boot. He made a couple of bad decisions throughout, but overall his performance was indicative of improvement we've seen throughout the past couple weeks.
Another highlight for Sacramento was the continued ball movement, even with the return of Cousins. Cousins actually ended up leading the team in assists with 5 to go with his 15 point, 10 rebound double-double. The team as a whole had 28, a mark the Kings met in every game this week. They also kept the turnovers to a minimum with just 11.
There were of course some negatives, including rebounding, second chance points, and the fact that we gave up a 27 point lead, but the thrill of victory gets rid of some of the bad aftertaste. The Kings have another tough opponent coming in on Sunday in the Boston Celtics, and it will take much more consistent production to beat them.
- Pablo Prigioni and Chris Copeland have been pretty great pickups for the Knicks. Copeland really impressed me with his strong overall skillset and Prigioni was playing feisty defense and running the offense very well.
- Great crowd at the game tonight. Not an insane amount of Knicks fans either, although there were a noticeable amount.
- DeMarcus seemed to handle himself well in terms of professionalism out there tonight. Not too much sulking or pouting, which was nice to see. Hopefully this isn't a short-term carry over and more of a long-term thing.
- I thought I knew most every player in the NBA, but even I had never heard of James White.
- Keith Smart probably should have called a timeout and subbed in his bench a lot earlier in the third quarter before the lead evaporated. I was not pleased with how he handled that. I did however like the fact that he kept a relatively tight rotation for once, even if it meant not playing a guy like Thomas Robinson and barely playing Chuck Hayes.
- I really like the updated/retro-look Knicks jerseys.
- Nostradumbasses of the Night were ThomasGQ and DiegoKing with 5 points each.
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