NEW YORK (AP) — The Atlantic Division title has gone from preseason goal to late-season stepping stone.
The New York Knicks celebrated their first division title in nearly 20 years Tuesday, a goal they’ve discussed since training camp, then quickly turned their attention to their future plans:
—Earning the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
—Extending their 13-game winning streak.
—Beating Chicago for the first time this season.
—And then chasing, as J.R. Smith called it, “that gold ball.”
The Knicks romped to their first Atlantic Division title since 1994, getting 36 points from Carmelo Anthony and beating the Washington Wizards 120-99 for their 13th straight victory.
“We took care of the division. Now it’s about making this run, finishing out the regular season strong and trying to making a push in the playoffs,” Anthony said.
Anthony put this one away with 21 points during the Knicks’ 37-point third quarter that gave them a 95-71 lead. The NBA’s scoring leader added eight rebounds and six assists while becoming the first Knick since newly elected Hall of Famer Bernard King with five straight 35-point games.
“I just think Melo, he’s been on a nice run and I mean it’s nice to see because and I know what he’s thinking,” coach Mike Woodson said. “He was thinking winning that division tonight and he wasn’t going to leave any doubt in anybody’s mind that we earned the right to win the division tonight.”
Iman Shumpert added 18 points for the Knicks, who negated a height disadvantage by tying a franchise record with 20 3-pointers. Smith and Chris Copeland each added 17 points.
On their longest winning streak since winning 15 in a row from March 1 to April 2, 1994, the Knicks can tie the franchise record of 18 in a row, set early in their first NBA championship season of 1969-70, by winning their final five games.
Next up is a visit Thursday to the Chicago Bulls, who have won all three meetings this season and ended Miami’s 27-game winning streak last month.
“We want to keep this thing rolling,” Anthony said. “If I sit here and say we’re not worried about that, I’d be lying to you. We want to keep this streak rolling, continue playing the basketball we’ve been playing, so our goal is to go in there and try to win this game in Chicago.”
The Knicks have won or shared six division titles, but had gone nearly two decades without looking at the rest of the Atlantic from the top.
“It’s a great thing to achieve one of your main goals, and now we’ve just got to go get that gold ball,” Smith said.
Division titles aren’t particularly important in the NBA — the Knicks don’t even hang banners that recognize theirs. It guarantees teams a top-four seeding in the playoffs but not necessarily home-court advantage in a series, which is determined by won-loss record, and Boston coach Doc Rivers said he couldn’t even remember talking to the Celtics about winning the division while they were taking the last five Atlantic titles.
But Woodson has been talking about it as a goal since replacing Mike D’Antoni last March. There was little celebration afterward, with many fans having already left when the public address announcer told the crowd the Knicks had won it after Anthony finished his on-court interview.
“There’s no reason not to have a smile on your face at this moment,” Anthony said. “We accomplished one of our goals that we set before the season in training camp, so it’s a stepping stone for us.”
The Knicks played without center Tyson Chandler (bulging disk), then lost replacement Kenyon Martin to an ankle injury after he’d missed the previous two games with a sore left knee.
It was a blowout by then, though with so many injuries in the frontcourt they were obviously concerned when Martin went down after grabbing a defensive rebound, pounding the floor in anger. The team said he had a sprained left ankle and that X-rays were negative.
John Wall scored 33 points for the Wizards, who gave the Knicks way too much shooting space on the perimeter and lost their 10th in a row at Madison Square Garden.
Anthony stayed right on the blistering pace that won him Eastern Conference player of the week honors after averaging 41.8 points while inching ahead of Kevin Durant for the NBA scoring lead last week. He sat out the fourth quarter after going 13 of 21 from the field.
“We know he’s hot and we tried to get the ball out of his hands, but he’s very efficient and can score in various ways,” Wall said. “Hats off to him.”
The Knicks made 10 of their first 14 3-point attempts and finished 20 of 36 (55.6 percent) while remaining 2 ½ games ahead of Indiana for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Chandler, who recently missed 10 games, told Woodson he felt soreness after Sunday’s victory at Oklahoma City. It left the Knicks, already missing veteran big men Rasheed Wallace, Amare Stoudemire, Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas, undersized against the Wizards’ front line that includes Nene and Emeka Okafor.
But the Knicks spread the ball around the perimeter and the Wizards couldn’t get close to them. New York was 9 of 12 on 3-pointers in the first quarter, with Copeland hitting one at the buzzer to make it 36-23.
“They shot the ball extremely well,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. “They hit 20 3s, they spread the floor and they have guys that can take you off the dribble. When they’re shooting like that, they’re a tough team to beat.”
The Knicks slowed down in the second and Washington was within seven late in the period, but New York scored seven points in the final 50.3 seconds, with Raymond Felton stealing the ball from Wall and laying it in with 1.3 seconds left to make it 58-43.
Notes: The NBA announced Tuesday that Anthony tops its jersey sales list, based on sales at the NBA Store in New York and on nbastore.com since November. He became the first Knicks player to top the list since it began in 2001-02. The Knicks also topped the team merchandise sales list. ... Wallace, out since December and recovering from a broken bone in his foot, started shooting Tuesday and the Knicks still hope he can return for the playoffs. ... The Wizards played without Trevor Ariza, bothered by knee and ankle pain. Trevor Booker played despite a sore lower back.
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