After a month of lifeless basketball, the Knicks are again showing a pulse. A 92-86 win over Indiana on Wednesday marked New York's seventh straight victory and an important step in the team's hopeful march toward playoff contention. Four games still separate the Knicks from the eighth-seeded Hawks, but the winning streak has at least lent New York's postseason dreams an air of plausibility.
That prospect alone can be a powerful motivator, especially in a season as tumultuous as this. At no point have these Knicks kept pace with internal or external expectations; they opened 2-4 and were 3-12 by the end of November. Everything since has been a scramble from behind, scored by outbursts of frustration from most all involved.
Might this be the point at which the Knicks -- who really should be more competitive on a nightly basis -- finally break through? That's a hard position to maintain, given the well-established basis for skepticism. This isn't New York's first winning turn, after all; the Knicks had two other winning streaks of at least four, only to follow those bursts with a rash of losses. None of this team's periodic improvement has lasted, which puts us in a precarious spot as we look to evaluate New York's sudden upswing against depressed competition.
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A win over the Pacers on national television has the profile of a big-deal game, but let's not dismiss the fact that Indiana has been consistently mediocre for the past two months. Beyond that, the Knicks have defeated the Bucks, Celtics, Sixers, Cavaliers, Jazz and Timberwolves to complete their streak, with the seven opponents combining for a .385 winning percentage. New York is still due polite applause for finally getting its house in order to win the games it should. Anything beyond that, though, would be well over the top.
To be fair, the schedule alone doesn't account for the full extent of New York's improvement. Consider this possession against the Timberwolves:
Carmelo Anthony passes out of a double team. Raymond Felton makes the next swing in line. J.R. Smith declines an opportunity to isolate against Kevin Martin. Felton initiates a drive without pulling up too early. Smith goes to work with the clock ticking down and makes a great kick-out to an open Felton. So much is going right for the Knicks on this play because collectively, at long last, they're refusing to play like dopes. The offense still detours to undesirable ends and gets bogged down at times, but in all we've seen crisp, clean decision making from a team not exactly known for it.
They've been aided by a shift to a new default lineup option: a bigger set featuring Anthony, Felton, Smith, Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire that aims to max out New York's offensive strengths. Before the Knicks' latest streak, that group had shared the floor for all of 48 minutes, albeit to decent effect. Over the past seven games -- only five of which have seen the full starting five active -- that same group has logged 78 minutes together and waxed opponents with their scoring. That group has spaced the floor well for Stoudemire and Anthony, who have popped opponents for a combined 46 points per game through a smart balance of quick-hitters, open jumpers and measured isolations. There aren't just shades of a dangerous offensive team here but overtones; if Stoudemire were this functional earlier in the season, maybe these Knicks could have been something.
But he wasn't and they aren't, even if Amar'e has come on strong to help New York through this stretch. Sustained performance of this caliber (Stoudemire has averaged 17.3 points on 54 percent shooting in just 27 minutes during the winning streak) might offer some relief from the more general Knicks gloom, but any lineup juxtaposing Stoudemire with Anthony, Felton and Smith defensively will be in a precarious spot. That hasn't mattered much so far because of the quality of competition -- Pacers, in their current form, included -- but the margins will tighten in time and what the Knicks give up defensively will ultimately take its toll.
All Stoudemire, Anthony and their teammates can do is continue to work as hard as they have of late and hope for the best. For all of the Knicks' schematic issues on defense, some of their biggest faults have been a product of regrettable effort. The way that coach Mike Woodson's designs enable lazier players to volunteer switches rather than fight through screens is the most obvious example, though one could see a similar lack of follow-through in New York's rotations in general. One player would step in to help without any support form his teammates. Another might muster only a half-hearted close-out against an open shooter. A soft double team would give a token address to a bad switch only to exacerbate the Knicks' defensive disadvantage. The game tape from earlier this season is littered with blunder on blunder, harmful precisely because the players involved couldn't be bothered to give a damn.
That much has very evidently changed, if not to a degree that in any way makes the Knicks a good defensive team. Such standing is well out of a reach for this group, but New York can still play for respectability in its coverage with the kind of backbone it's shown over these last seven games. Each of those seven comes with its own grain of salt, as is inevitable with any win over the Bucks or Jazz or Sixers this season. What matters even more than the wins, though, is the slightest spark offering the slightest hope. Win or lose, playoffs or not, the Knicks are working.