The smile on Carmelo Anthony's face stretched from ear to ear as he walked off the Wells Fargo Center floor in Philadelphia on Wednesday night, the kind of toothy grin that only appears when things are going right. Five straight wins, the latest a gritty 82-79 victory over the division leading Sixers, and the Knicks are rumbling toward the playoffs with a once impossible to imagine division title -- and a top-four seed in the postseason -- within sight.
Yes, the Knicks are a better team under Mike Woodson, which isn't to say Mike D'Antoni was the problem. Anthony's associates may have spread the word that D'Antoni had lost the locker room, but that's a laughable suggestion to anyone who has been in it. D'Antoni didn't lose Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler or Jeremy Lin, the undrafted castoff who used D'Antoni's offense to become an overnight sensation. He lost Anthony, the supremely talented yet fiercely stubborn superstar who simply refused to buy into what he was teaching.
In truth, Woodson's offense isn't much different than D'Antoni's. The Knicks still play off the pick and roll, still look to create space for perimeter shooters. They keep the play calling light -- one scout charted just 16 plays the Knicks called in a win over Toronto on Tuesday -- and rely on an abundance of offensive talent to score. Sure, Woodson has tweaked a few things; if Lin is bottled up coming off a screen there is a built-in isolation play, usually for Anthony or Stoudemire, for him to fall back on. But as overhauls go, this was more of a face-lift.
"We're not doing anything differently than anyone else in the league," Woodson said.
No, the difference is in the energy, on both ends of the floor. Offensively the ball is moving in ways it wasn't in D'Antoni's final days, when Anthony hijacked the fluid, read and react system and attempted to impose his own style on the game. Lin is still the catalyst but Anthony is clearly more comfortable knowing he is going to get his post-ups, his isolations and that Woodson isn't going to push him out deep on the perimeter. Defensively the Knicks are playing, said Chandler, "with a sense of urgency," locking in early on opponents and refusing to give up on any plays. The Sixers missed their first 14 shots on Wednesday and finished the game shooting 38.7 percent from the floor.
"Earlier in the season we were worried about rotations," Chandler said. "We were coming to the bench trying to figure out whose fault it was. Now we're taking all the guessing out because guys are playing so hard. Because of that, you make up for your mistakes."
Woodson doesn't want any part of a conversation about a surge in energy, because he knows it's a slippery slope. Suggesting the Knicks played without energy under D'Antoni would be suggesting they quit, an insinuation Woodson is not about to make. But there is no question the end of the Anthony-D'Antoni feud has eased the tension in the Knicks locker room and the resulting extra effort has been evident during this five-game stretch.
"Not saying it's someone's fault, but they are a different team," said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. "They are getting a lot of offense off their defense. They are more aggressive on defense and that is turning into a faster paced offensive game."
There is often a honeymoon period following a coaching change and the Knicks appear to be enjoying a prolonged one. They have a chance to make up more ground in the division this weekend, when they face cellar dwellers Toronto and Detroit in a back-to-back, before a crucial showdown with Milwaukee next week. Eventually, though, they will level off. Anthony has been a subpar defender for 8 1/2 years; a strong stretch of play doesn't change that. Woodson will keep playing Lin -- "He wants to keep this job," said an Eastern Conference executive -- but rival scouts insist Lin isn't Woodson's type of point guard, that the defensive minded coach prefers bigger, stronger playmakers (like Baron Davis) who are better equipped to play his constantly switching defense. And the reason Woodson has preached more accountability on defense lately is because he knows the good teams (Chicago, Miami, even Boston) have the personnel to expose a defense that switches all the time.
We have seen the good, the bad and the ugly in New York this season, but the final chapter is still months from being written. The Knicks, says a scout, "have the talent to beat anyone," but couple that with a maddening inability to consistently put it together. They could surge to a strong finish, win a playoff series or two and come back next season the title contender many believe they can be. Or they could stumble when the schedule toughens and spend the summer wondering which polarizing head coach, Phil Jackson or John Calipari, will say yes to James Dolan's millions first. Based on this topsy-turvy season, the future, frankly, is impossible to predict.