Moke Hamilton, NBA AnalystWith Wednesday night’s 110-81 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, the New York Knicks have regained the edge in the crosstown rivalry.
But more importantly, they have regained the edge over the Atlanta Hawks for the eighth seed in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. There is still basketball to be played, but surprisingly, the Knicks will wake up on Thursday morning as a playoff team, thanks to their leading the Hawks by win-percentage points.
Since March 5, the Knicks have gone 12-3, and while those who view the glass as half-empty will point out the fact that the majority of those wins have come against lesser-than-stellar competition, the Minnesota Timberwolves, Indiana Pacers, Golden State Warriors and yes, these Nets, have each been playing respectable basketball in their own right.
All four have fallen to the Knicks.
The biggest reason for optimism moving forward — and we say this in spite of terrible shellackings at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns — is simply effort.
Effort, as well as the play of both Amar’e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith.
The Knicks have been one of the league’s biggest enigmas this season. All season long, the NBA world collectively wondered why the Knicks—though not nearly as talented as the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers—were not winning more and in many of their losses, an apparent lack of effort and motivation was the culprit.
That has certainly not been the case over the past 15 games and with just seven remaining, it would be wise to judge today’s Knicks not by the results of the team they were earlier this season, but of the team they have become over the past few weeks.
As the season has progressed, Amar’e Stoudemire has gained not only confidence in operating from the low and mid-post, he has gained know-how. The most important thing that a post-player in the NBA can have is an impressive array of counter-moves. With Mason Plumlee guarding him down the stretch of the first quarter on Wednesday night, Stoudemire showed an ability to finesse his way to where he wanted to be in the low-post area simply by countering Plumlee’s planting and movements and it is something Stoudemire has developed quite well.
Although he is still prone to turnovers, the Knicks have shown a willingness to give Stoudemire opportunities in the low-post in spurts and the results have been mostly positive. Over the course of his last 14 games, Stoudemire is averaging 16.9 points and 6.6 rebounds in just 28.3 minutes per game. He is shooting about 57 percent from the field and has slowly but surely emerged as a much-needed offensive pace-changer for the Knicks. In his 14 starts since March 1, the Knicks are 10-4.
As for Smith, his shot-selection and decision-making are still as questionable as they each were back in November and December, but something has gotten into him recently. Perhaps his left knee is finally 100 percent after the surgical procedures he underwent last summer or maybe it is a want to keep himself off of the trading block this summer, but since March 1, Smith is averaging 15.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game, but most importantly, he shot 45 percent from the field and 40 percent from behind the three-point line.
His shooting in March was a far cry from back in November and December, when he converted on just 35 percent of his shots. It is also worth noting that the 40 percent clip with which he connected in March was his single-best three-point shooting month this season.
As a team, the Knicks went 11-5 in March after going 2-11 in November, 7-9 in December, 10-6 in January and 2-11 in February.
Along the way, injuries to Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler certainly adversely affected the team, as did depth-chart and rotation shuffling, but if the past 15 games has been any indication of who the Knicks truly are today, then finishing the season up on a high-note by winning four of the final six games is certainly possible—especially if the Knicks play with the same collective energy and passion that has been mostly apparent over the past few weeks.
With Chandler and Iman Shumpert playing their roles as defensive anchors who can make other contributions when opportunities avail, and with Tim Hardaway Jr. continuing to provide an offensive spark—even if somewhat inconsistently—the Knicks have the makings of a playoff team.
Obviously, at this point, the hole that has been dug is so deep that the Knicks are not in control of their own destiny. Even if they win out at this point and finish the season 39-43, they will need the Hawks to lose at least two more games from here on out.
The good news for the Knicks? That is easily imaginable. On February 1, the Hawks were 25-21 and were widely considered one of the league’s surprise teams of the first half of the season. Since then, they have gone 7-21 and have experienced a free-fall from the conference’s fourth-seed to, entering play on Thursday, being win-percentage points out of the eighth seed.
While the loss of Al Horford was devastating, the Hawks, as an organization, are clearly not invested in making the playoffs and being used as slam dunk crash test dummies for the Miami Heat in their inevitable first round sweep. Instead, the rebuilding organization would probably be much-better served by missing the playoffs altogether. In such an instance, it is quite likely that the Hawks would end up with the 10th selection in the 2014 NBA draft and an impact player could be had.
As is well chronicled, the Denver Nuggets own the Knicks’ 2014 pick, so there is no such incentive in New York. And with the impending free agency of Carmelo Anthony, the last thing the franchise would want is for the first time that Anthony misses the playoffs to be the summer when he will probably have his only opportunity to seek greener pastures while he is still in his prime.
With an improbable stretch and only six games remaining, the Knicks have a serious shot at making the playoffs. Anthony is magnificent, but he cannot drag the Knicks there on his own.
Fortunately, for everyone involved, with Stoudemire and Smith both playing at a high-level, he may not have to.
Moke Hamilton is the NBA Analyst for SNY.tv and, along with Lead Writer Harris Decker, hosts the Knicks Blog Podcast each and every Wednesday. Follow him on Twitter: @MokeHamilton