In a shootout between the NBA's two leading scorers, it was a sixth man sniper who fired the biggest shot.
With the shot clock approaching zero and the Thunder on the verge of getting the ball back with less than a minute remaining Sunday afternoon, New York point guard Raymond Felton slipped to the floor and batted a loose ball out to teammate J.R. Smith, who was roughly 28 feet away from the basket and getting ready to retreat on defense.
Smith scooped up the loose ball and in one fluid motion buried a 3-pointer while hopping on one foot as the shot clock expired. It proved to be the fatal dagger in the Knicks' 125-120 victory over the Thunder before a stunned sellout crowd of 18,203 at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“It was kind of crazy,” Smith said with a smile. “I thought Raymond was going to hit that lay-up so I started dropping back to half court to help get back on defense. Then he just kicked it back. I looked at the shot clock – just glanced at it – the shot clock was going down so I tried to get my shot off as high as I could because my shot was kind of short before that, and fortunately it went in.”
Smith's heroics gave the Knicks (50-26) their 12th straight victory and their 50th win of the season while sending OKC (56-21) back down to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference behind idle San Antonio.
In the process, Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony passed three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant in this season's scoring race.
Anthony finished with 36 points and now has a 28.44 scoring average. Durant finished with 27 points and is averaging 28.35 points. Durant would have retained the lead had he scored 34 points Sunday.
“I try not to think about that,” Anthony said when informed he was the new scoring leader. “I just go out there and play ball.”
The game-deciding sequence was vintage Smith, a streaky shooter who can either shoot his team into – or out of – any ballgame.
Smith was just 5 for 16 from the field and 1 for 8 from 3-point range before he buried a step-back, 23-footer just inside the 3-point line with 1:30 remaining that gave the Knicks 117-113 lead. That was followed by the 28-foot dagger that allowed Smith to finish with 22 points.
“Not at all,” Anthony said when asked if he's ever surprised when Smith hits a big shot. “He has made plays like that. He makes tough shots. Sometimes I think he likes to take the tougher shots over the easier shots, and they still go in. But that shot was a nail in the coffin. J.R. made a big shot.”
One month earlier, in this season's previous meeting between the Knicks and Thunder, Smith scored 36 points but missed a turnaround 17-footer with 1.8 seconds left that allowed the Thunder to escape from New York with a 95-94 victory on March 7.
“They're a great team,” Smith said of OKC. “I wish we could have had the one at the Garden when we played them and 'Melo didn't play that game (because of a sore knee), so we got 'em back. We made big shots. It feels good to win. It's our first time to win in this building.”
Anthony also had 12 rebounds, which included nine offensive boards that he cashed in for 11 points. Durant also had seven assists and four blocked shots.
Point guard Russell Westbrook led the Thunder with a game-high 37 points, plus 11 rebounds, eight assists and just one turnover. Sixth man Kevin Martin had 15 points and was 3 for 3 from 3-point range. Reserve point guard Reggie Jackson added 13 points, as did Serge Ibaka, who was 6 for 6 from the field with six rebounds and five blocked shots. However, OKC is now 25-3 when having five players score in double figures. Felton had 16 points and eight assists for New York, while center Tyson Chandler scored 15. Veteran reserve guard Jason Kidd had 14 points that included four 3-pointers, and rookie reserve forward Chris Copeland added 13 points off the bench, all in the first half.
The Thunder sizzled at 57.7 percent from the field, lost for just the second time this season when shooting 50-plus percent and now stands 25-2 when that occurs.
A brutal recent schedule might have caught up to the Thunder, which was playing its third straight game against a division leader in a span of 63½ hours.
OKC beat San Antonio 100-88 at The Peake on Thursday night and followed that up with a 97-75 victory at Indiana on Friday night in what coach Scott Brooks called his team's most impressive road victory of the season.
The Thunder's next game is at Utah on Tuesday night, followed by back-to-back games at Golden State and at Portland on Thursday and Friday to close out its final road game of the regular season.