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The Knicks embarrassed Orlando at home Thursday night in a matchup of two of the more dysfunctional franchises in the NBA at the moment. NY has lost two of their top three players in the last week, with Jeremy Lin out for the season and Amar’e Stoudemire out but potentially back for the playoffs. In a Season Of Weird, both of those things remain delightfully insane. Jeremy Lin was one of the Knicks’ best players this season? And Amar’e is out, not the historically fragile Tyson Chandler or the old and brittle Baron Davis or even the DL-familiar Carmelo Anthony?
Weirder still is the hot streak the Knicks have been riding since Mike Woodson took over as coach. The Knicks are allowing nearly nine points less per game, holding opponents to a lower shooting percentage, all that good stuff that translates to good defense. Is Woodson responsible? Well, there are basically three components to playing great defense in the NBA: you need to have the right schemes, you need to have the right talent, and you need to have the EFFORT. That last one has been the key for the Knicks – they clearly hated playing for Mike D’Antoni, and the fresh start has simply led to more intensity, more flying around the perimeter on defense, more collapsing on the ball handler, all that good stuff.
Oh, there’s a fourth component. It doesn’t hurt to play mediocre/bad/imploding teams, which the Knicks have been beating up as of late. By my count, they’ve only played three teams under Woodson who would be in the playoffs if the season ended today: Philly, the mercurial Pacers, and the more mercurial Magic. They would have actually emerged from this stretch with a perfect record against those playoff foes, but alas, they blew a win in stunning fashion this week to Indiana, a game in which they were outscored 40-17 in the fourth quarter. Read that again, and tell me they’ve improved that much on defense.
So if Linsanity coincided with the mild part of the schedule, and the Woodson era has occurred during the medium part, next up is muy caliente. A home-and-home with Chicago may turn into a season sweep, which does not bode well for a first round matchup with… Chicago, of course. Will the Bulls beat the Knicks eight times in one season? It seems unlikely, but with or without Derrick Rose, the Bulls are certainly capable of it. They beat the suddenly surging Celtics Thursday night, sans Rose, and are rapidly approaching the 50-win mark in a season with only 66 games. The last two Knicks-Bulls games have been surprisingly close, but with no Lin and no STAT, the Bulls should be able to focus their number two ranked defense solely on Carmelo Anthony.
So what does this mean going forward? The NBA isn’t the NFL or MLB – no short playoff series, no “any given Sunday” mentality. The Knicks might steal a game next week, but they are not beating this team in a best-of-7. The Knicks have one hope: overtake Philadelphia, just 1.5 games in front, and then hope and pray the Magic complete their total meltdown so the Knicks can grab the 6 seed to square off against… Indiana!
Now we’re talking! It’s so strange to think that the Knicks have a perfect route to the second round of the playoffs staring them in the face, and two giant roadblocks in the first round in the form of Chicago and Miami. The Knicks have some brutal games coming up – the two against Chicago, consecutive home dates against Boston and Miami, a tough away game against Mike Woodson’s old Atlanta squad, and a closing home date against Blake Griffin and the Clippers. That’s six games that could easily be six losses. The remaining five games? Eminently winnable.
Thus the playoff push begins, and the Knicks have a clear goal in mind: leapfrog into sixth place and get a fighter’s chance at their first playoff win in over a decade (seriously, look that up. Not series win, just single-game WIN.) or suffer a second consecutive sweep at the hands of LeBron and Co. or first-place Chicago.
But maybe this is too advanced for a team that’s only 1.5 games out of a lottery spot. Yikes!