The New York Knicks know they have to play better defense if they want to avoid their first three-game losing streak of the season.
That will be easier said than done on Thursday night when they host the San Antonio Spurs, the NBA's highest-scoring team and one that is in the midst of the longest winning streak of the season.
The Knicks rank 15th in the NBA in scoring defense at 97.2 points allowed per game, but that average sits at 100.5 during a 3-5 stretch. They yielded 106 points in a loss at Sacramento on Dec. 28, then dropped two straight for the first time since Nov. 21-23 with a 105-100 defeat against visiting Portland on Tuesday.
New York got both Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire back from injury, with Stoudemire making his season debut following knee surgery on Oct. 31. He came off the bench and played 16-plus minutes, scoring six points on 3-of-8 shooting with one rebound.
"I felt good," said Stoudemire, who entered to a standing ovation. "The game felt like it was going 100 miles an hour that first half. I had a couple easy- looking shots, open shots. Just a little bit rusty, wasn't able to knock those down, but the second half was better than my first half. And hopefully my second game will be better than my first game."
It is unknown how long Stoudemire will come off the bench, but head coach Mike Woodson knows his former All-Star is still not 100 percent.
"From a defensive standpoint, he was rusty. We just have to keep working with him," Woodson said. "He was kind of rushing a little bit, but you expect that. The guys been sitting out a while, but we'll get him back to good old Amare."
Anthony, meanwhile, had missed the previous two games due to a hyperextended knee, but returned to match a season high with 45 points. He is second in the NBA in scoring with 29.2 points per game.
The Knicks had just enough to beat the Spurs in San Antonio on Nov. 15, getting 25 points and seven assists from Raymond Felton, while Tyson Chandler had 13 points and 12 boards.
It was just New York's third victory in its last 14 versus the Spurs and first in San Antonio since March 18, 2003.
The Knicks have lost four of their last six at home versus the Spurs, but can sweep the season series tonight for the first time since taking both matchups in the 2002-03 season.
They will have to do so without Felton, who is out with a broken right pinky finger.
Six Spurs scored in double figures in the loss to the Knicks, led by Tony Parker's 19 points, 12 assists and six rebounds. Tim Duncan added 14 points, 14 boards and three blocks.
The duo, along with Manu Ginobili, have vaulted the Spurs to the top of the league's scoring list. San Antonio is averaging 105.9 points per game, but is netting 111.7 a night over a current seven-game winning streak.
San Antonio used a big first half to hold on to a 117-110 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night. The Spurs led 33-22 after the first quarter and by as many as 21 in the second before the Bucks made a late run.
Milwaukee got within five with 13.1 seconds left, but the Spurs' Patty Mills hit a pair of free throws to ice the game.
"You have to give them credit," Parker said of the Bucks. "They made it hard on us in the second half and we were able to keep the lead and make some key shots for us to win the game."
Duncan had a double-double with 28 points and 13 boards while also adding six assists. Parker added 23 points and 11 assists, while Ginobili finished with 16 points and six assists.
San Antonio, which improved to 13-6 on the road this season, is 5-3 in the second portion of playing on back-to-back nights.