By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Mike Woodson did not have long to wait for his first win as new coach of the New York Knicks as his team trampled the Portland Trail Blazers 121-79 at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday to end a six-game losing streak.
Woodson is acting as interim head coach after Mike D'Antonio resigned earlier in the day.
"For our team, this was an important game," said Woodson. "We're still trying to stay in the playoff hunt."
The Knicks kept pace with Milwaukee after the Bucks beat Cleveland to remain tied with New York (19-24) for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff berth.
Portland, losers of six of their last eight, dropped to 20-23.
"It's kind of an emotional day, you lose your head coach, who I have a great deal of respect for," said Woodson, praising his players' effort at a difficult time.
"They stepped up, they made plays on both ends of the floor.
"The thing I was very impressed with was how they defended and how they shared the ball offensively," he added.
The Knicks squeezed the Trail Blazers with some zealous defending, holding them to less than 40 percent shooting and forcing three 24-second violations.
Playing with enthusiasm and energy, the Knicks raced to a 25-12 first quarter lead with Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire setting the tone by running the floor and feasting on fast breaks.
The lead increased to 55-29 at intermission and by the fourth quarter, long-range shooters J.R. Smith and Steve Novak found their touch and finished as the game's top scorers with 23 and 20 points.
In all, the Knicks made a sizzling 19-of-38 from beyond the arc.
Anthony contributed seven assists to go with his 16 points, while Stoudemire shot 8-for-10, mostly on dunks, in scoring 17.
"It was an unfortunate day," said Anthony, who had seemed to struggle under D'Antoni's offensive system. "We responded well."
Jeremy Lin said he felt a debt of gratitude to D'Antoni for giving him a chance to escape the bench and become a surprise sensation at point guard.
"Obviously, I miss him a lot," said Lin, who had six points, six assists and six turnovers in just under 23 minutes on the floor. "I am not going to forget what he did for me personally. I am sad to see him go. I owe him a lot.
"We just played really hard," added Lin. "We came out with a chip on our shoulder and obviously wanted to get Coach Woodson his first win as our head coach."
Woodson said he knew many players felt a bond with D'Antoni.
"You look into their eyes when something like this has happened, you wonder as a coach are they mentally there," he said.
"I just told them to take a deep breath and relax. Let's go out and have fun and play basketball the way I think we're capable of doing and I think they responded."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)