COMMENTARY | Through the course of an 18-5 start, followed by an inconsistent 20-21 stretch, and then a 13-game winning streak that clinched their first division title in 19 years, the New York Knicks have taken their fans on a bumpy ride this season.
Yet, through it all, the Knicks appear to be playing some of their best basketball at just the right time. Poised to lock up the two seed in the Eastern Conference, they're starting to give their fans ample reasons to believe that they can legitimately challenge for an NBA title this year, even with the imposing defending champion Miami Heat standing in the way:
1. Carmelo Anthony's Improved Health and Renewed Focus
Over much of his NBA career, Carmelo Anthony has taken a lot of criticism (some warranted, much of it not) for being a selfish player. Lately however, Anthony has done a lot to dispel that notion, especially after he temporarily left the Knicks' western road trip in mid-March to have his injured right knee drained.
Back at full strength, Anthony has taken his game to another level over his past six games (through April 11) -- a stretch that began with a career high-tying 50 points during a win in Miami, and which included Anthony's third Eastern Conference Player of the Week award this season.
Anthony has scored at least 36 points in each of those games, while taking over the league scoring lead. Yet, despite what his detractors may say, Anthony has been on a mission to compete for an NBA championship over trying to secure the scoring title (which may come as a by-product of the former goal, anyway).
Notably, his efficiency and effort in other ways than scoring have come to the forefront over his past six games. Anthony has shot over 50 percent from the field five times, and better than 60 percent four times, while committing a scant 1.3 turnovers per game (including none in three games) in that span.
During that same time, Anthony has also turned his recent scoring spree into a double-double, with averages of 10 rebounds and 3.7 boards on the offensive glass. Four games ago, Anthony pulled down a season high 14 rebounds before surpassing that total with 19 boards in his last contest (on April 11), and in addition to scoring 36 points in Oklahoma City, on April 7, his nine offensive rebounds in that game led the Knicks to one of their biggest road wins of the year.
2. Mike Woodson Turning an Erratic J.R. Smith into the NBA's Best Sixth Man
There were few things that J.R. Smith loved more than freely jacking up shots from just about anywhere in the front court. But, there's also nothing head coach Mike Woodson likes more than winning. And, before Woodson could get his team winning games on a more regular basis, he had to first win the battle of getting Smith under control and getting him to the hoop more aggressively. Score that one for Woodson, who has worked hard on coaching Smith to be a more efficient and productive player of late.
Over his first 62 games this season, Smith shot at least 50 percent from the floor just 14 times, yet he did the same 10 times in his next 16 games. Meanwhile, all five times in which Smith has attempted double digit free throws this year have all come in his past 16 games (through April 11), as he continues to be the NBA's leading bench scorer and arguably, the league's best player coming off the pine.
3. Raymond Felton Becoming More of a True Point Guard
For the Knicks' offense to be its most productive, it has to start with the player who is most often running the show, in starting point guard Raymond Felton. As he did with Smith, Woodson, to some extent, deserves credit for getting Felton to make better decisions on the floor.
As a result, the formerly shot happy Felton has gone from taking double digit field goal attempts in 27 of his first 28 games this season, including 14 games with more than 15 shots over that time, to returning from injury and attempting at least 10 shots in only 20 of his next 38 games, while taking over 15 shots in just four of those contests. With his altered mindset, Felton has made it a point to set others up more often, especially with the game's leading scorer playing alongside him at such a high level.
4. The Knicks' Tremendous Three-Point Shooting Capability
Reason number three has a direct affect on reason number four, which in turn, is the number one possibility the Knicks might have a fighting chance against Miami in the postseason, should that matchup take place. In their division title-clinching win on April 9, New York tied a franchise record with 20 made three-pointers, and even as their season high 13-game winning streak finally came to an end in Chicago, on April 11, the Knicks drained 10 more threes to set an NBA single season record with 847 made treys (and counting).
New York beat Miami in three of four games between the teams this season, with the three ball playing a major factor in the Knicks' three wins. While beating the Heat by 20 points in each the teams' first two meetings, New York shot 19 of 36, and then 18 of 44 (without Anthony), respectively, from behind the arc. In the most recent game of the four, Anthony made a sizzling 7 of 10 threes to account for half of the Knicks' 14 (in 27 attempts).
In contrast, during Miami's lone win against New York this year, the Knicks blew a 16-point late first-half lead and shot just 8 of 29 from three, with Smith missing 11 of 14 three-point attempts. So, if the threes don't fall, New York could get bounced in the first round of the playoffs just as easy as they could go far when their threes drop.
5. If Healthy, the Toughness of Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin
As mentioned above, the Knicks have one of the best scorers in the NBA, a very solid second scoring option off the bench, and can shoot the three as well as anyone in the league. And, they've also remained one of the best teams in the NBA at minimizing turnovers.
But, when the pace slows down to the usual half-court crawl of NBA postseason basketball, what could decide their playoff fate is the health of their front court, where all season long, New York has dealt with a myriad of key injuries.
When healthy, Tyson Chandler was an All-Star this year, and ever since being tried out on a 10-day contract late in the season, Kenyon Martin has filled the role the injured Rasheed Wallace provided early in the season, with the type of interior toughness, and the fostering of defensive communication and accountability among his teammates required to advance in the NBA playoffs.
The problem for now though, is that Chandler and Martin are hurt, although they figure to come back in time for the playoffs, if not sooner. Add, potentially Wallace, Marcus Camby, or Amar'e Stoudemire to the mix, should any of them return from the own injury woes, and newly acquired forward James Singleton (from Washington), and the Knicks would be even deeper up front.
If the Knicks are on their game, they'll have decent chance to return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1994, but the prognosis isn't entirely rosy. Keep an eye out next week, for five main causes of concern for Knicks fans.
Jonathan Wagner is a New York Knicks beat writer for New York Sports Day and a weekly featured guest discussing the Knicks and other sports topics on the New York Sports Geeks internet radio show (powered by Sportsideo ). Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanJWagner .
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- Raymond Felton
- Mike Woodson