The New York Knicks have clinched their first playoff berth in seven years, and they can now turn their focus to moving up a spot in the Eastern Conference.
Facing the short-handed Toronto Raptors should be a good first step.
The Knicks look to complete their first four-game sweep of their Atlantic Division rival since Toronto’s inaugural season Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
New York (38-38) certainly hasn’t looked like a championship contender since trading for Carmelo Anthony(notes), but it’s going to get its much-anticipated shot at an East heavyweight starting in two weeks. The Knicks have bounced back from a six-game losing streak by winning three straight, locking up the franchise’s first postseason berth since 2003-04 with a 123-107 victory over Cleveland on Sunday.
“That was the goal we set at the start of the season. The plan was to make the playoffs,” said forward Amare Stoudemire(notes), who had a game-high 28 points. “It’s mission accomplished and now on to the next one.”
New York is seventh in the East, 1 1/2 games behind Philadelphia, and it could catch the 76ers as soon as Wednesday when the teams go head to head.
The Knicks and Sixers will almost certainly face Miami and Boston in the first round, but those clubs are in a back-and-forth battle for the second seed.
The Knicks are 2-2 against the Heat and 0-3 versus the Celtics.
“Any time you accomplish a goal, you really have a sense of pride,” Stoudemire said. “After that game (Sunday) night, I felt extremely emotional. … But now it’s time to get back on track.”
New York hasn’t swept four games from Toronto (21-55) since 1995-96, and doing so again may not be easy. Prior to beating the Cavaliers and Nets over the past week, the Knicks had lost six straight to sub-.500 teams.
In addition, the Raptors are coming off an impressive victory in their second game without point guard Jose Calderon(notes) and center Andrea Bargnani(notes). A night after staying close before falling at East-leading Chicago, Toronto defeated Orlando 102-98 on Sunday behind 47 points from the starting backcourt of Jerryd Bayless(notes) and DeMar DeRozan(notes).
“Everybody is playing well right now,” said Bayless, who has scored 49 points in two games filling in for Calderon. “We’re playing well, moving the ball and everybody is touching it. It’s a fun way to play.”
Bargnani or Calderon may not play in any of the remaining six games and that would be good news for the Knicks, particularly in the case of Bargnani. He scored a career-high 41 points at MSG in a 113-110 loss Dec. 8.
Stoudemire has averaged 28.0 points and 13.3 boards against the Raptors this season, but he may have trouble dominating the glass Tuesday. Toronto forward Reggie Evans(notes), who missed two of the first three meetings with a broken foot, has averaged an NBA-best 20.9 boards per 48 minutes since returning March 9.
Anthony, who has yet to face the Raptors in a New York uniform, averaged 25.7 points in his last 12 games versus Toronto with Denver - 11 wins.