A Hot Start, a Mediocre Middle, and a Flawless Surge to a Division Title
After New York started out as hot as anyone in the league with a dominating 18-5 start, some key injuries mounted, the Knicks' defensive intensity often sagged at times, and previously made open shots were routinely missed.
The result was the equivalent of exactly half a season of no better than ordinary and vastly inconsistent play that produced a 20-21 record over New York's next 41 games.
Since then, however, the Knicks (through April 10) have not only returned to their earlier winning ways, but they also haven't lost at all. They've ridden a season-best 13-game winning streak to their first division title in 19 years, while accumulating at least 50 wins for the first time in 13 seasons.
As Anthony Got Healthy, So Did the Knicks' Season Again
While there are several different factors for New York's dramatic turnaround, the Knicks' ability to set their season back on a positive course has mostly coincided with the improved health of their biggest star, Carmelo Anthony.
During New York's earlier four-game losing streak out West, which preceded its current winning streak, Anthony was initially reluctant to try anything other than letting his knee naturally drain and heal on its own.
But, he later had a different take after finally giving in to the advice of the Knicks' medical staff.
"I always take [my recent success] back to [getting] my knee [taken care of]," Anthony told me on April 5`, after leading New York to its 11th straight win (over the Milwaukee Bucks) with a game-high 41 points in front of the franchise's 1972-73 legends (who were the last Knicks to win the NBA title that Anthony now covets four decades later).
"I think that was the most important thing that happened to me at that time," he added. "I give a lot of credit to getting that procedure [done]."
The scoring outburst against the Bucks put Anthony in exclusive company, tying him with his childhood basketball hero, Bernard King. They're now the only two Knicks to score at least 40 points in three consecutive games, after Anthony recorded a career-high 50 points in Miami, followed by a 40-point game the next night in Atlanta.
Even though his points can often be the simple result of being his team's shot leader, Anthony demonstrated incredibly consistent efficiency over that three-game stretch, by shooting 18-for-26, 17-for-27 and 17-for-28 from the field, respectively.
"Right now, I am in one of those zones," said a much healthier Anthony, who was last week's Eastern Conference Player of the Week, one week after Sixth Man of the Year candidate J.R. Smith earned the same honor (those accolades gave the Knicks the distinction of being the only team in the league this year to have different players win the award in successive weeks).
Going a couple games further, over New York's five most recent contests (as of April 9), Anthony has averaged 40.6 points per game on supremely efficient 61.1 percent shooting (60-for-131) from the field, while shooting 58.6 percent (17 of 29) from 3-point range in 37.2 minutes per game. He also tied his career high with 50 points in one of those games.
Yet, it's not just Anthony's amazing scoring pace that had him at 28.6 points per game, just 0.3 points ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant for the league scoring lead (through April 10). He's also grabbed 8.2 rebounds in his past five games (including a season-high 14 against Milwaukee), and perhaps his best statistic covering that span (considering how often he touches the ball), is his 1.2 turnovers, including a grand total of just one in four of those contests.
"Don't jinx me," Anthony joked, after I made him aware of just how well he was protecting the ball recently, following New York's division-clinching win over Washington on April 9.
Although his detractors still believe otherwise, Anthony is indeed a lot more concerned with winning his first NBA championship than a scoring title (even though he's been neck-and-neck with Durant all season).
In fact, on his 40-point game streak, Anthony told me after beating the Bucks, "I didn't know anything about the record until today," while adding, "It is great to be mentioned in the same breath as [King]. It is a big honor."
He's also been so focused on winning, he wasn't even aware (until I told him) of the big news earlier that same day -- that after being denied entry into the basketball Hall of Fame for several years, King would finally achieve that status on his sixth nomination.
"He made it?" asked a surprised Anthony, before saying proudly, "He deserved to be in a long time ago."
For those who perhaps rightfully doubted the validity of New York's winning streak (which largely came against a soft schedule), the Knicks and Anthony had a big-time answer for that as well, on April 7 with a 125-120 win in Oklahoma City before a national television audience. It was just the sixth loss in 39 home games this season for the Thunder, who are battling San Antonio for the top seed in the Western Conference, as they try to reach the NBA Finals for a second straight year.
Once again, Anthony came up big in that game with a game-high 36 points on solid 15 of 29 shooting from the floor, in addition to hauling in another dozen rebounds, including nine on the offensive glass.
Other Knicks Besides Anthony Have Been Stepping
Even with that effort, though, Anthony couldn't beat a top-notch team like the Thunder by himself. Five other Knicks also scored in double figures, ranging from 13 to 22 points, including two key starters (center Tyson Chandler and point guard Raymond Felton) and two other players off the bench besides Smith (Jason Kidd, and Chris Copeland).
It was the first time during New York's long winning streak that made Chandler's comments to me on April 5 about the 1972-73 Knicks seem like somewhat of a realistic possibility.
"We've got to get into the brotherhood," he said of the Knicks legends of four decades ago.
"They have a brotherhood, and you can see it. We just want to follow in their footsteps."
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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