CHARLOTTE - There was one factor that made this game a success, despite the 94-87 defeat last night to the Bobcats that snapped a four-game winning streak. Jared Jeffries was dominant.
And the Knicks sorely missed him when he fouled out with 2:23 left in the game.
In a season where clearing as much salary cap space as possible for the 2010 free-agency run is the top priority, you can still rate this as a positive night as Jeffries continues to increase his trade value with excellent defense and a positive impact on both ends of the floor. If the Knicks can move him before the Feb. 18 trade deadline, it would clear another $6.8 million off the 2010 cap.
Of course, as the Knicks saw down the stretch last night, it also will create a major hole on defense.
Without Jeffries, who spent most of the game guarding lightning-fast guard Raymond Felton and quarterbacking a very effective 3-2 zone defense, the Knicks could not get two critical stops in the final 1:16. Felton scored on consecutive drives as he blew by Chris Duhon on the left side and went in for an easy layup with 1:16 left and again with 39.5 seconds remaining, both times with no interior help.
"We just didn't defend him right," a dejected Duhon said afterward. "We just blew our coverages and didn't rotate and he was able to score."
At the other end, the Knicks offense, which appeared to be on the verge of blowing the game open in the third quarter, sputtered horribly with just 13 points in the fourth and just two points in the final four minutes.
Before the game, Duhon criticized the Knicks' lack of focus in a 102-100 overtime loss here on Oct. 30, and this time around it was the ending that hurt them.
"When we got it up to 10 we kind of took our foot off the pedal and we're not good enough to turn the switch on and off," Duhon said.
Coach Mike D'Antoni was agitated with his team's lack of "spirit, heart and desire" to seize the opportunity to keep their streak alive.
Stephen Jackson had 24 points for the Bobcats (10-13) and then made this bold proclamation: "We feel like we're better than them. We think we're a playoff team that will get to the playoffs."
Jeffries scored only four points in the third quarter, but he dominated it defensively with four steals and two drawn charges, along with several deflections. It was an ideal showcase quarter for Jeffries, who was aggressive at both ends of the floor and even drilled a three-pointer with 7:00 left in the game to give the Knicks a 77-74 lead.
But he was called for his fifth foul going after an offensive rebound against Gerald Wallace with 5:42 left and he was gone after he was called for a block against Jackson with 2:33 left. When he checked out of the game, there was a noticeable difference in the Knicks, who did not get the same intensity out of Larry Hughes (3-for-10, six turnovers).
"He was dominating the whole game," D'Antoni said of Jeffries. "There's no doubt that was a big turning point."