BY ZACH HAYES
Special to ESPN Wisconsin
In a game offering a never-ending inventory of heart palpitations and season-altering shots, the single most crucial miss of Wednesday’s Knicks-Bucks instant classic came at the free throw line.
With eight minutes and 52 seconds to go, Milwaukee could taste their biggest regular season victory since the unlikely playoff push of 2010. Behind the heroics of Monta Ellis and the sweet shooting of Mike Dunleavy, a double-digit New York lead slowly but surely reversed course into an eight-point Bucks advantage.
Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony then drove to the basket, drew a foul on Carlos Delfino and let the raw emotions of a de facto playoff game get the best of him, spiking the ball in the air in frustration and drawing a technical foul.
Now Brandon Jennings was headed to the free throw line to give the Bucks a comfortable nine-point lead. New York's backs were up against the wall, staring at a precipitous drop from Linsanity to the lottery.
Rather than finish the Knicks off at their most fragile state, Jennings missed the free throw, one of nine critical Bucks misfires from the charity stripe on the night. Tyson Chandler followed with a dunk. Beno Udrih missed an open 16-footer. Anthony swished a cold-blooded jumper. Suddenly the lead was down to four and the game was up for grabs.
The door left ajar by Jennings free throw miss was burst open by a suddenly confident Knicks team infused with new life. Anthony canned his usual array of off-balance, contested shots. J.R. Smith played Robin to Carmelo’s Batman with a number of back-breaking three-pointers, including one from the left wing to give New York a 108-107 lead with just over a minute to play. Even former Marquette standout Steve Novak contributed two big shots down the stretch.
“We had our chances,” Bucks coach Scott Skiles said. “We came out of a timeout with a free throw to go up nine on a technical. We missed that and we missed a couple of open looks right after that and they got back into it right there. And it so often happens one team makes the plays and the other team doesn’t. They made the plays and we didn’t.”
Milwaukee had their prime competitor for a playoff spot on the ropes and failed to finish the mission. The win gives New York a full two-game advantage for the eighth seed in the East with the teams splitting their four head-to-head meetings.
“You don’t expect at that moment to turn eight into 16 and run away or anything,” Skiles said. “You’re just hoping that nine goes back to six back to eight and you’re just kind of keeping them there and we just weren’t able to do it. That was a big moment in the game.”
Rather than lament the Bucks shot selection down the stretch, Skiles instead focused on the often overlooked factors that so frequently decide such closely contested games.
“The other thing in the last five to six minutes the thing that’s reared its ugly head on us all year (was) there were some loose balls on the ground that we just didn’t come up with,” Skiles said. “These games are won and lost a lot of times there is a fine line. And on little plays like that we just had trouble making that defining play that we could then go down, make a basket and maybe stretch it to four or something and be in the driver’s seat. We just couldn’t make it.”
Even without the services of Amare Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin, the Knicks boast an extremely talented roster. Bucks guard Brandon Jennings knows that every fumbled loose ball and missed free throw only invites such a capable team to hang around long enough for the kill.
“This one hurts, just the fact that we played so hard,” Jennings said. “Monta was out there giving his all all night. Mike Dunleavy was out there hitting shots. Larry (Sanders) was being as active as he could.”
“It’s real disappointing. We had one right there. A couple shots didn’t go our way. We had a chance to open up the lead and we didn’t.”
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