Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony drives between Washington Wizards forwards Martell...

Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony drives between Washington Wizards forwards Martell Webster (9) and Chris Singleton (31) in the first half. (March 1, 2013) Credit: AP

WASHINGTON -- If the Knicks are going to have any chance to compete for an NBA title, they know they need to play better all-around basketball on a more consistent basis.

They took another step toward building that type of long-term positive momentum Friday night with a 96-88 victory over the Washington Wizards, their third straight win.

Sure, the Knicks could have used a laugher against a team they came in expecting to beat, especially with another matchup with the Miami Heat looming Sunday at the Garden.

But as Raymond Felton said, "Any win is sweet at this point, in the second half of the season. We need to have these."

So what if this win over the Wizards, who beat them here three weeks ago, was filled with a few too many hand-wringing moments? Mike Woodson credited his team's defense for "coming to life" in the fourth quarter, and that proved to be the difference.

The Knicks outscored the Wizards 23-11 in the final quarter, and Carmelo Anthony helped the Knicks pull away with a three-pointer with 2:23 left that gave them a 92-87 lead. "We didn't want to let this one go," Anthony said.

Anthony had 30 points, Felton scored 23, J.R. Smith added 13 points and 12 rebounds and Tyson Chandler pulled down 10 rebounds for the Knicks.

As the Knicks embark on a busy month, Woodson kicked it off by shuffling the starting lineup, moving the struggling Jason Kidd to point guard on the second unit in an effort to make him more of a playmaker and less of a stand-still shooter.

Kidd's offensive struggles continued -- he went 0-for-4 from three-point range -- but the Knicks seemed to be a more cohesive offensive unit during the moments when Kidd was on the court in his more familiar point guard role.

Anthony said the change "took a little pressure off J Kidd," who still played 28 minutes. The players also thought the inspired defensive play in the fourth quarter might have been a side effect of the lineup switch.

"We played 48 minutes tonight," Kidd said, "and it probably had been a long time since we did that."

It's a good time to start with that kind of end-to-end effort, considering what the schedule has in store for them.

The game marked the start of a month filled with lots of basketball. In 31 days they'll play 18 games, including a West Coast swing. And Sunday's game against the defending champion Heat -- which is riding a 13-game winning streak after beating the Grizzlies, 98-91, Friday night -- is the start of a stretch of four games in five days.

Woodson called March "a pivotal month in terms of where we go with our team," and he has to like how it began, especially on the defensive end.

"We stepped it up when we needed it the most," Chandler said. "Buying into the system is the key. We all knew we had to step it up and play our part."

And now here comes the Heat. That the Knicks already have beaten Miami by 20 points twice is something neither team has forgotten.

"We've got no choice but be ready," Anthony said. "We've always felt we were one of the better teams, anyway. We will be prepared for Miami."

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