In the first game of a difficult stretch, the New York Knicks sent a statement to the rest of the NBA Wednesday by routing the Orlando Magic, 108-86. Playing in the second game since Amare Stoudemire was sidelined indefinitely with a bulging disc in his back, Carmelo Anthony led all Knicks in scoring with 25 points in 26 minutes.
In this lockout-shortened season, it’s easy to forget that if this were a regular NBA season, the All-Star Game would still be two weeks away. This year, NBA teams have two months less than usual to find their stride. Before Monday night's matchup against the MIlwaukee Bucks, someone on the Knicks staff inserted photos of the NBA championship trophy over every players' locker.
The message was clear. While it may sound far-fetched, it's not impossible. Far from it, actually.
Last time the Knicks entered the playoff stretch battling for the eighth seed they had hot shooters (Steve Novak/Allen Houston), a volatile shooting guard (JR Smith/Latrell Sprewell) a hobbled big man (Amare Stoudemire/Patrick Ewing), another tall shot blocker (Tyson Chandler/Marcus Camby) and a defensive-minded head coach who replaced an offensive mastermind (Mike Woodson/Jeff Van Gundy). The Eastern Conference’s number one seed that season were the Miami Heat.
From a talent perspective, Anthony, Chandler, Lin and JR Smith sound like a more potent trio than Allen Houston, Sprewell, Charlie Ward and Camby. It doesn’t hurt that the Heat are currently struggling as well.
Before getting too elated about what Wednesday night's win means in the grand scheme of things, it’s important to know that the Magic have a habit of playing ugly on occasion.
On Jan. 23, the Magic scored a franchise all-time low in an 87-56 loss to the Celtics. On Jan. 27, they lost 93-67 to the Hornets and 10 days ago the Chicago Bulls, 85-59, routed them.
Conversely, the Knicks are the streakiest team in the league. However, the Knicks are also in the midst of a defensive rebirth. Since Woodson was elevated to head coach they’ve been allowing a league-best 86 points per game. After the game, Woodson was more in awe of Iman Shumpert’s defensive effort than he was with the rookie’s 25-point effort.
While the Knicks are in firm control of the eighth seed and a playoff berth, these Knicks weren’t assembled to just make the playoffs. They are also just 2.5 games back of Philadelphia for the lead in the Atlantic Division and home-court advantage in the first round.
The Celtics, Pacers, Hawks still stand in their way along with the NBA’s fifth-toughest schedule. The three teams are also clumped together in the standings within 1.5 games of each other. The Knicks face the Hawks at Phillips Arena Friday before playing Cleveland Saturday. Their next four opponents are the Pacers, Magic and the Bulls twice.
If the Knicks are interested in repeating history, they’ll have to prove they can continue this type of performance on a nightly basis against playoff contenders. April wouldn’t be the worst time for the Knicks to embark on another hot streak.