The way the injury-plagued Knicks are succeeding right now, maybe the playoffs can't come soon enough after all.
They extended their winning streak to a season-high seven games Friday night, beating the league-worst Charlotte Bobcats, 111-102, at the Garden.
J.R. Smith scored a season-high 37 points, shooting 12-for-18. He became the first NBA player since 1990 and the first Knick ever to score more than 30 points off the bench in three straight games (37-35-32).
Carmelo Anthony had 32 points and 11 rebounds and Raymond Felton added 16 points as the Knicks regained second place in the Eastern Conference, percentage points ahead of Indiana, and moved 31/2 games ahead of the Nets.
The Knicks led 38-20 after the first quarter and by 22 at the half, scoring 69 first-half points for the second straight game. They displayed a frenzied effort on both ends of the court in the first half, and the videotape of their tenacious play surely will please coach Mike Woodson. It served as proof that his team didn't enter the game looking beyond what appeared to be a sure win.
But the way the Knicks ended the game might leave a different taste in his mouth. The Knicks led by 30 points in the first half but the Bobcats (17-55) wouldn't go away, pulling within 102-95 with 2:02 left. A game earlier, the Knicks had a 30-point lead over the Grizzlies cut to four. "You like to win big when you are up big, but to me a win is a win," Woodson said. "We are not closing it out the way we should."
Smith's offense off the bench has more than made up for the absence of Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler. Woodson's halfcourt offense is designed to let players freelance a lot, allowing Smith to show off a dizzying array of shots during this historic three-game stretch.
Smith has shot 35-for-60 in that span, including 6-for-12 from three-point range, and is 28-for-30 from the free-throw line as he continues to attack the hoop. He scored at least 30 points for the fourth time in the last nine games and at least 20 for the seventh time in that span.
"We're following his lead right now," Anthony said.
A longtime teammate of Smith's in Denver, Anthony added, "I've seen him have his spurts, have his runs before, have some outstanding games. But the way he has it locked in right now, his focus level, I haven't seen that in a long time."
Smith scored 23 points in 16:48 in the first half, shooting 9-for-11, as the Knicks built a cushion they would need. "The last run I was on like this was in high school, and that was too easy," he said. "But we have a great cast with Melo and Ray, we have so many threats out there, it's hard to honor each one every game. So depending on who has it going, it just so happens it's my turn."
The Knicks made 14 of their first 19 field-goal attempts and built a 20-point lead before the first quarter was over.
The way the first half went for the Knicks, it seemed as if just about any shot would fall. They shot 62.5 percent from the field (25-for-40) and 75 percent from three-point range (9-for-12). Even Jason Kidd's lefthanded hook shot from three-point range as time was running out in the first quarter hit the rim.