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Knicks strengthen notion they're set to contend for Atlantic crown

First, the facts: This wasn't Boston at its best. Coming into Sunday's season opener, the Celtics were a shell of the team that wrapped up the 2010-11 season and a weakened version of the group that will likely finish this one. Down Paul Pierce (heel) for the game and Jeff Green (heart surgery) for the season, and with newly signed Mickael Pietrus yet to join the team, Boston's M.A.S.H. unit included Sasha Pavlovic in the starting lineup and Marquis Daniels firing critical fourth quarter three-pointers that ordinarily would have gone to, well, anyone else.

That's not the Knicks' problem, of course. They had injury problems of their own, with Mike Bibby (back) out and rookie Iman Shumpert (knee) and Jared Jeffries limping off during the game. And though the Knicks won't archive Sunday's 106-104 win -- not after allowing the Celtics to shoot 51.3 percent and give up a whopping 48 points in the paint -- it does enhance a message the team has been pushing lately, that the Atlantic Division is no longer Boston's to run.

It has been 17 years since the Knicks raised a division banner. Back then, Pat Riley was the coach, Patrick Ewing was the star and the team came within one win of an NBA title. Since then the franchise has had its ups (the lockout-shortened run to the '99 Finals) and downs (see Thomas, Isiah Era) while watching division rivals take turns jumping over them. Recently, it has been Boston, which has won the last four division crowns, rolling over the Knicks (10-2 in the regular season) along the way.

This Knicks team, however, has a chance to write a new history. Carmelo Anthony (37 points, including 17 in the fourth quarter) and Amar'e Stoudemire (21) picked up where they left off last season, when the two combined for the second highest scoring average in the league. Tyson Chandler (seven points, three rebounds) wasn't especially effective but his history suggests he will be a major asset defensively this season.

"He's very good at being that last line of defense," said a Western Conference scout. "And a team like New York, that doesn't play much defense, desperately needs that."

Indeed, backstopping New York's defense -- or at least plugging as many holes as he can in it -- will be Chandler's sole responsibility this season. Rajon Rondo had a field day on Sunday, racking up 31 points, 13 assists and five steals. Toney Douglas couldn't contain him and it's likely Bibby, who was run out of Atlanta primarily because of his weak defense and who wasn't particularly effective in Miami, won't be any better. Against some of the league's better guards, Chandler will often have to defend two players.

There is a wild card in New York's locker room: Baron Davis. Davis, who will miss at least the next three weeks with a back injury, is not a lock-down defender ("average, at best," said the scout) but he's a dynamic offensive player who, when healthy, can pressure opposing defenses with a variety of skills.

"He can be one of the top two or three point guards in the league," Pierce said. "He's such a unique player at point guard because of the way he distributes, shoots and how explosive he can be. I think he can be inspired by the opportunity to be on a championship contender. That does wonders to players, getting into an organization where that's the goal."

It's hard to envision the Knicks as a title contender, not with deeper, more talented teams like Chicago and Miami ahead of them. But you don't walk before your crawl and the Knicks could take a significant step this season winning a division that is up for grabs.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers says the Knicks size up front makes them dangerous.

"They are very much like the Lakers," Rivers said. "Teams struggle with the Lakers because they are talented, but it is because of their length; 5-4-3, that's a big basketball team. Length makes you a better defensive team. You don't even have to do anything. You just have to be tall. That's going to be an area where New York is going to be vastly improved."

Boston won't just cede its throne and Philadelphia, which finished the season 38-28 after a rough 3-13 start under Doug Collins, figures to be in the mix, too. But after sinking to the NBA's depths the Knicks finally have two A-list stars, "two of the best finishers in the business," Mike D'Antoni said, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in the middle and more depth than they have had in a decade. The opportunity is there, just waiting for them to take it.

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