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Are the Knicks really contenders? Latest victory keeps us guessing

NEW YORK -- The Knicks' contender status has been debated more than ObamaCare, caused more flip-flops than Larry Brown and created more fodder for talk shows then Tiger Woods.

OK, maybe not Tiger.

On one side of the argument, the Knicks are one-dimensional. They rely too much on Carmelo Anthony and if you give a smart defensive coach (Tom Thibodeau, Erik Spoelstra) time to focus exclusively on their offense, they will find a way to shut it down.

On the other side, the Knicks are explosive, blending a superstar (Anthony) and a squadron of three-point shooters with a defense that over the last month has developed into one of the stingiest units in the league.

Advocates for the latter picked up more ammunition Tuesday, when the Knicks overwhelmed Boston 118-110. It was an offensive clinic spearheaded by Anthony (35 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) who was aided by a 3-point assault by Steve Novak (8-of-10) and J.R. Smith (7-of-10). It was vintage Knicks, who again ran their offense almost exclusively through Anthony and had shooters ready -- as a team they shot 56.8 percent -- when he got bottled up. They obliterated Boston's bench (55-2) and survived a mediocre defensive effort (Boston shot 54.5 percent) to snatch a much-needed win against a division rival.

New York's win moves the team a full game ahead of Philadelphia for the No. 7 spot in the East and now, suddenly they are ... well, that's not so clear. Is beating a Celtics team playing without Ray Allen, playing in its fourth straight game on the road and fourth game in five nights, a meaningful accomplishment? Even for scouts, it's hard to say.

"Any time you have a star like Carmelo, you have a chance," said a veteran scout. "They can score with a lot of teams. The real wild card is Amar'e [Stoudemire]. If he can give them anything, they will be dangerous."

Ah, Amar'e, the one-time face of the franchise with a back Larry Bird isn't envious of. Knicks coach Mike Woodson suggested that Stoudemire -- who has not played since Mar. 24 due to a bulging disc in his lower back -- could return as soon as Friday.

"I'll be back soon," Stoudemire said. "I definitely have to get some games under my belt before the playoffs. There's a little hint."

Stoudemire is right: He has to come back before the playoffs. The Knicks have not exactly been a shining example of good chemistry this season. Jeremy Lin can play with Landry Fields, but struggles with Anthony. Anthony can play with Steve Novak, but can't get on the same page as Amar'e.

Anthony and Stoudemire need time to gel. They need to work on pick-and-roll sets and get comfortable with where each other is on the floor in Woodson's offense. They need time, and the practice floor or the playoffs is not where they are going to get it.

"We want [Stoudemire] to get healthy," Anthony said. "We're just holding it down until [he] gets back."

As the season winds down, it's looking more and more like the Knicks will draw the Heat in the first round. New York has lost three times to Miami this season and only once -- a 93-85 defeat last Sunday -- has the margin been in single digits. Yet the Knicks remain remarkably confident about their chances. Said Iman Shumpert on Sunday, "It's obvious that we can beat them."

Is it? Not even the most schooled scout seems to know. The Knicks are too Jekyll and Hyde, too volatile, too unpredictable to get a good read. Would it be a surprise if the Knicks bowed out in four games? Would it be a surprise if they pushed Miami to seven? Would it be a surprise if they (gulp) won the series?

We just don't know what the Knicks are yet. In a couple of weeks, we will find out.

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