Wednesday April 13th, 2011

We have all had some fun with the Knicks this season, haven't we?

We've snickered at team management for the protracted Carmelo Anthony negotiations, talks that played out in the public eye and ended with maligned owner James Dolan injecting himself into the process at the eleventh hour to get the deal done.

We've written and speculated thousands of times that maybe, just maybe, Mike D'Antoni's free wheeling offense doesn't suit ball-stopping players like Anthony and Chauncey Billups.

We've wondered whether the cross river Nets -- who have declared a border war with their neighbors -- made the better trade deadline deal when they poached All-Star point guard Deron Williams from the Jazz for less than what they were offering Denver for Anthony.

Indeed, the Knicks have provided great fodder for columnists and commentators alike this season. They still are, too, only now they are doing it in a different way. See, the last three weeks have revealed a surprising truth.

The Knicks are pretty good.

New York lost to Chicago 103-90 on Tuesday. It meant nothing, of course. The Knicks, who are locked into the No. 6 seed, didn't dress Amar'e Stoudemire while the Bulls, who are neck-and-neck with San Antonio for the NBA's best record, played Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng until the final buzzer.

What is noteworthy, however, is the way the Knicks have played before Tuesday night. They won seven straight going into the matchup with Chicago and though the competition hasn't exactly been stiff -- Orlando, Philadelphia and Indiana were the only playoff teams on the list -- the beatings they have been laying on teams have been impressive. They averaged 115.7 points per game during the streak, topping 120 three times.

What's changed? Anthony, for one. 'Melo has always been a bit streaky and right now, he's riding a hot one. Anthony averaged 32 points in the Knicks last seven wins while shooting a blistering 47.9 percent from the three-point line. After struggling to adapt to D'Antoni's offense early, Anthony has embraced it.

"I am flowing," Anthony said. "I bought into [the system]."

While Anthony has grown accustomed to his teammates, his teammates have adjusted to playing with him. It wasn't easy swapping out Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler for Anthony and Billups. The transition has been bumpy. But slowly, it seems, the Knicks have started to develop some chemistry. Role players like Landry Fields, Toney Douglas and Shawne Williams have figured out how to play off their new high profile teammates.

"We're starting to figure out how to close out games," said Douglas. "We're getting stops when we need them and we're taking care of the ball. The little things, like not being in the bonus, is going to be a key for us in the playoffs."

Ah, the playoffs. New York will make its return to the postseason for the first time since 2004 this weekend, against Boston. Privately, the Celtics wanted this matchup. They are hoping the Knicks anemic defense will give their equally anemic offense a jolt and the intensity of a New York-Boston series will stir the competitive juices that have been dormant since the Kendrick Perkins trade in February.

The Knicks want it, too. They have lost three straight to the Celtics -- the series finale is an utterly meaningless JV game the two teams will play Wednesday night in Boston -- but two have been by four points or less and the third, a 10-point loss last month, was a game New York dominated for three quarters before choking the game away in the fourth.

"Right now we are playing with a lot more confidence," Anthony said. "That winning streak came at a great time going into the playoffs."

It's hard to predict how the Knicks will perform in the postseason. Boston is a veteran team with three straight years of deep playoff runs on its resume. New York has players with lengthy postseason resumes -- namely Billups, Anthony and Stoudemire -- but the bulk of the roster is largely inexperienced. Billups says the younger players will have to "follow the veterans" and spend the next few days with a no nonsense attitude in the film room. But it's a lot to ask for a team that was assembled on the fly seven weeks ago to oust a team of Boston's caliber.

Still, just getting to this point is an accomplishment. The Knicks are riding high heading into the postseason. Year 3 of what seemed like an impossible rebuilding plan in 2008 has been a success and at the very least New York will have something to build on for next season.

"I've never gone into a playoff where I thought it was all right if we lose," said Knicks president Donnie Walsh. "I can say this though: this team, I'm happy they are in the playoffs because it will be a big moment for them and their future."

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