Carmelo Anthony celebrates a basket in the first half during...

Carmelo Anthony celebrates a basket in the first half during a game against the Indiana Pacers. (Nov. 18, 2012) Credit: Jim McIsaac

The Knicks felt the effects of a tough road trip during their early-afternoon game Sunday. They were bleary-eyed and the intensity and buzz at the Garden were low, but they did something they would have had trouble doing last season: They fought through all of it and did what they were supposed to do against a lesser team.

Behind 26 points from Carmelo Anthony and another overall strong defensive performance, the Knicks defeated the Indiana Pacers, 88-76, in a game that showed how much this veteran-laden team has grown in a short time.

"Last year we let the game slip away," Tyson Chandler said. "It's definitely the maturity of the team and the maturity of the players. We got a lot of vets that understand these games add up and these are the games at the end of the year when you're in that dogfight and you're trying to jockey for position, these are the games that put you over or under."

It was an ugly game to watch, but for the Knicks, it was rewarding. They put their first loss of the season behind them, overcame some unsightly shooting and improved to an Eastern Conference-best 7-1.

The Knicks shot 33-for-90 (36.7 percent) but led by as many as 20 in the fourth quarter. They held the Pacers to 39.4-percent shooting (28-for-71) and forced 19 turnovers.

"It's tough coming off that road trip like we had and the early game -- I'm not using it as an excuse -- and trying to get guys geared up to play at a high level," Mike Woodson said. "So I was very pleased at the way we came out defensively."

The Knicks went 2-1 on their trip but showed a lack of composure in the finale in Memphis on Friday night. The Knicks didn't arrive in New York until about 6 a.m. Saturday. Some players didn't get to their homes until about 7 a.m.

They had time to rest, but you could see it was a struggle. That was true for both teams.

Still, the Knicks played with more purpose and have much more talent than the Pacers, who are without Danny Granger because of a knee issue and look nothing like the team that led the Heat 2-1 in the conference semifinals last season.

"We're playing for something," Woodson said. "We're trying to stay at the top. We're trying to win our division and host the first round at home. We got to win at home. Whoever comes in here, we got to make sure they come out of here and go somewhere else looking for a 'W,' not here."

The Knicks are 4-0 at the Garden this season and 15-1 overall here since Woodson replaced Mike D'Antoni.

J.R. Smith added 13 points off the bench and Raymond Felton had 11 points, eight assists and zero turnovers. The Knicks committed only nine in the game.

Paul George scored 20 for the Pacers, who were limited to 30 points in the first half.

"We had to find the energy from somewhere," Anthony said. "[This] was one of [those] days where we had to do it on the defensive end."

Now the Knicks again hit the road for three games. They're at New Orleans Tuesday and Dallas on Wednesday before facing Jeremy Lin and the Rockets in Houston on Friday. But the Knicks can exhale for a little while, knowing they didn't let fatigue beat them Sunday.

"Everybody was like still kind of jet-lagged and just exhausted," Felton said. "But we found a way. It does show a lot about this team. We have a lot of fight in us."

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