MILWAUKEE - This Touch of Grey Tour of Milwaukee, Detroit, Minnesota and Cleveland began here last night with a 120-112 win over the Bucks at the Bradley Center. Mike D'Antoni finally saw that sense of urgency he had been looking for from his team, which moved within 2 1/2 games of the final playoff spot in the East.
"Losing this game, I think," said David Lee, "kind of would have been the exclamation point on the season."
Lee had a monster game with 19 points and 18 rebounds and Larry Hughes, the team's other St. Louis native, put forth his biggest game as a Knick, with 39 points - one short of his career-high - in 42 minutes.
And then came the dagger, a three-point bomb by Hughes in front of the Bucks bench with 1:34 left in the game that put the Knicks ahead at 113-107. Sessions finally failed to answer and the Bucks finally succumbed.
"We have good pieces on this team, we just need to find a way to put everything together and play the way a playoff team should play for 48 minutes," Hughes said, "and that's hard, aggressive on both ends of the court and we did that in the second half."
After a first half in which the Knicks had the intensity of an early-season game, Lee set that more aggressive tone Hughes spoke of as he attacked Bucks center Francisco Elson on the first three possessions of the third quarter. Lee scored off a terrific spin move for a dunk, a layup for a three-point play and then drew a foul for two more free throws in the stretch as Lee's work sparked an 18-4 run by the Knicks, who turned a 65-56 halftime deficit into a 74-69 lead with 7:56 left in the third.
"I just tried to be a leader," Lee said. "We didn't necessarily have a bad first half, but I thought I could play better and I thought we could play better."
It was the Knicks' first win over the Bucks this season in four tries, but while the win moved the Knicks closer to the Chicago Bulls for the final berth in the East, it also knocked the Bucks (30-37) out of a tie with the Bulls for the eighth seed.
Charlie Villanueva led the Bucks with 32 points and Sessions, a potential free-agent target of the Knicks this summer, added 22 points and nine assists.
D'Antoni, meanwhile, was still talking about how to get his players to raise their collective intensity to a level more befitting of a team battling for a playoff spot.
"Usually this time of year they're in kind of their home-run trot," D'Antoni said of the Knicks, who haven't made the playoffs since 2003-04 and generally spend most of March and April preparing for draft lottery position.
But this time around there will be no tank-mode even if they do mathematically fall out of playoff contention. Winning will take precedence over lottery positioning.
"We've got to start winning some and getting a little bit of an attitude and start understanding that this also sets us up for next year," D'Antoni said.
"There's not going to be a time where we say, 'OK, let's just be playing these guys to play these guys.' I don't believe in that . . . We're going to play as hard as we can every game and try to get better. If it's not for the playoffs, than for next year."
It should have no affect on Danilo Gallinari, who appears to have solidified a spot in D'Antoni's rotation. Before the game, D'Antoni said the rookie "probably, arguably, has been our best player over the last couple of weeks." But last night he struggled with just two points, going 0-for-5 from the floor.