NEW YORK -- Tonight's column is a shout-out to the throw-ins in the Carmelo Anthony trade.
And no, we're not including Chauncey Billups in that grouping, because throw-ins do not score 33 points and give halftime speeches in the locker room -- "Sixty-eight points to these guys?" -- that put the team back on the right track.
No, the throw-ins of the night were Anthony Carter and Shelden Williams, who made play after play after play midway through a fourth quarter in which Anthony (who scored just two of his 39 points) and Amare Stoudemire (who scored two of his 23 points) were not the reasons the Knicks won.
New York moved back within a game of .500 and put together its first two-game winning streak since March 7 in large part because of three Carter/Williams possessions midway through the fourth quarter of a 120-116 victory over the New Jersey Nets on Wednesday night.
The first play came with the score tied 99-99, when Carter threw a 60-foot lead pass ahead of the field to Williams for a breakaway layup that gave the Knicks the lead.
The second came on the Knicks' next possession, with Carter grabbing one of the two offensive rebounds the Knicks gathered in the final 12 minutes and feeding Williams for a reverse layup that upped the lead to four.
The third came after a missed 3-pointer by Deron Williams, with Carter taking a pass from Anthony as he was double-teamed and quickly redirecting it under the basket to Williams for a dunk that completed what was likely the first personal 6-0 run of Williams' somewhat long and somewhat inglorious career.
Yes, it was Anthony, Billups and Stoudemire who provided 95 of the Knicks' 120 points.
But without that stretch from Carter and Williams when Stoudemire was on the bench with five fouls, and when Anthony was drawing constant double-teams, the Knicks might not have walked away winners from a game that was being called the Nets own personal Super Bowl (they played on ESPN for the first time since 2007).
"The thing is, the more you're around Anthony Carter the more you appreciate him, just his work ethic and he's got a huge heart," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said. "And sometimes, coaches, at a quick glance, you say 'He doesn't shoot the ball well,' and 'I don't know if he can do that pick-and-roll,' and 'I don't know and I don't know.'
"And the bottom line is, he finds a way to get it done. And that's something when you're around him, you become more confident with him. And I'm glad I started playing him, because he's huge. You can put him on different guys and he does a great job defensively. So he's been big.
"And Shelden, he's steady. He knows how to play. He's smart, he's a bigger body that can bang and help us out there," D'Antoni said. "So we have different guys and different things we can use, it's just sometimes it's hard to figure out do you go more offense, less defense; or more defense, less offense. But those two guys did play big."
And so the month of March, with its 18 games that so drained the Knicks both physically and emotionally, ended on a high, one that looked unlikely in a first half in which the Nets scored 68 points and converted 11 rebounds into 18 second-chance points as New York went back to the no-defense, no-rebounding formula that helped make this month such a roller coaster ride for them.
Remember, it was only back on March 1 that the Knicks were riding an emotional high as they headed into the new Amway Arena in Orlando after having defeated the Heat in Miami in their third game after the big trade.
But that was the night Billups' thigh collided with Dwight Howard's knee, bruising it to such a degree that Billups needed the full month to get back to being close to 100 percent.
A string of three consecutive wins against Atlanta, Utah and Memphis kept up the hype and the hope, but then came the slide of nine losses in 10 games, including six in a row that didn't end until Monday when the Knicks finally figured out it was better to actually give a genuine effort on defense rather than just saying you'll do so, which was one of the key contributing factors in their victory over the Orlando Magic.
In this one, all the bad defensive habits returned in a first half that left the Knicks livid in their own locker room.
"We came in at halftime, and I was really frustrated, I had some words to say," Billups said. "A couple other guys were frustrated. And it was just like: 'Sixty-eight against a team that played last night?'
"We're fresh, supposed to be fresh, this is a big game for us, we've got a lot to lose, they don't, and they looked like they wanted it more than we did. And we talked about that, we came out and immediately in the second half kind of turned the tide. The momentum went our way," said Billups, who had his highest-scoring game as a member of the Knicks. "If we can get to a point where we can scrap like that from the start of the game, we should have some easy games."
Anthony scored 39 for the second consecutive game, joining LaMarcus Aldridge of Portland and Monta Ellis of Golden State as the only NBA players to have three consecutive games with at least 35 points.
This Knicks team is still light years away from being a title contender, but the competition they will likely face in the first round of the playoffs is not as scary as it might have seemed a couple months ago.
New York could draw the Boston Celtics, who have dropped seven of their past 12 games and had losses in March to the Clippers, Nets, Bobcats, Pacers, Grizzlies and Rockets. Or they could draw the Miami Heat, who went into Cleveland on Tuesday night and elicited the tweet of the year from Cavs owner Dan Gilbert -- "Not in our garage" -- with a stunning 12-point loss to LeBron James' former team.
So it is not like the Knicks are going to run into a juggernaut when the first round arrives, and they have eight more games to try to put together some kind of a sustained, positive run that makes March a distant memory and revives the hope that was springing eternal before spring even arrived.
"Our hair is not on fire," D'Antoni said prior to the game, preaching patience to a city famous for its impatience.
The Orlando game was a start, and the second half of the New Jersey game was another start. Soon, the postseason starts, and the Knicks left the Garden on Friday night feeling a whole lot better about their playoff prospects than they did just 72 hours earlier.