Monday, April 8, 2013

Are We Really Calling The Knicks Contenders?

The Knicks beat the Thunder on Sunday, and it wasn't surprising.  New York won its 12th straight on the road in Oklahoma City and have shown no signs of stopping.  They have won with clutch shooting and what seems to be a reinvigorated Carmelo Anthony.  He is possibly the most criticized superstar in the NBA now that Lebron won a title.  Carmelo has been playing this entire season with some sort of chip on his shoulder.  They say that he can't be the centerpiece of a title team, and now his team is the number one threat to the Heat's defense.  He has improved on his health (already 63 games played compared to 55 all of last year), his shooting percentage (.448 compared to .430 last year), his three point shooting (.381 this year compare to .333 career), on top of playing like a true MVP candidate.  So then why are we still skeptical of this team?

We have good reason to worry about this Knicks team.  It wasn't too long ago that the Knick need a hobbled Kurt Thomas to motivate them to beat the Jazz to avoid an 0-5 road trip.  They are still old.  They are still the Knicks.  Is that the argument you keep hearing, too?  What is it going to take for people to see that this team can compete.

I am not going to say that this team is necessarily as good as the Heat, but there have been crazier things that have happened in sports.  This team is still very good.  Beyond Carmelo, they still have Tyson Chandler blocking the lane as one of the best defensive players in the game.  He may not score a lot but he does everything else the Knicks need him to do.  They have Raymond Felton who finally seems to be playing like he did prior to his injury earlier this year.  In six of the past seven games he has had double digit points to go along with his improving ball movement.  Jason Kidd seems to be rebounding the ball well as of late and his ball movement is back to where it was before he was tired out by the minutes he needed to replace Felton.  JR Smith is looking like head and shoulders the best bench player in the game.  He isn't just throwing up threes anymore, he is making clutch shots and isn't making big mistakes.  He is averaging 23.75 points per game during this winning streak.  Out of the twelve wins he only has three where he shot under fifty percent.  Even Steve Novak seems to be hitting his threes again.

The one guy we have not mentioned is Kenyon Martin.  He may be the biggest reason the Knicks went from likely first round upset to possible contender to the title.  K-Mart has brought a toughness to this team that we haven't seen in a while.  Even though he wasn't on the court on Sunday, his presence is felt and this team wanted to show he has made an impact on them.  Whether they need defense, a hard foul, scoring, aggressiveness, whatever the Knicks need Martin is down to bring it for them.  He has really been the key to the turnaround in New York.

It is almost a definite that this recent run has locked down the Atlantic for the Knicks.  They have a six game lead on the Nets with six games to be played.  The last time the Knicks won the division was back in 1993-94.  Its been nearly two decades since the Knicks could claim to be the Atlantic Division champions.  Shaquille O'Neal's Magic team can claim they won the Atlantic since the Knicks have.  It has been over a decade of irrelevancy, but for once it looks like a bright future for this organization.  They seem to be making all the right moves while the stalwart Celtics are the ones making the wrong moves.  It may be a dog fight for the next five years between the Nets and Knicks for division champ, but this year it is the Knicks crown to lose.

So what can the Knicks do to beat the Heat?  They did it three times already (albeit once when the Heat were missing James) and were up on the only other time before a fourth quarter collapse sealed their fate.  The Heat have talent out the wazoo beyond their big three.  Maybe the formula was cast when the Bulls ended the 27 game winning streak a few weeks ago.  Can the Knicks be as physical as Tom Thibodeau's defense?  Chandler and Martin bring a new kind of dynamic that could help this team in the long run.  The Heat want to drive the lane and chance they get and there are a few things they need to go right.  Shumpert needs to play perimeter defense like he did before his injury.  They need to hit their threes when they take them.  Smith needs to play like he has the past few games, not like the guy who tries to be a hero.  Woodson needs to stay consistent with his game plan and not stray from what got him there. 

What we haven't even touched on is the players who aren't even playing right now.  Amare Stoudemire hasn't played in seventeen games and counting.  Rasheed Wallace was hurt back in December and it seems as if he is just around the corner every week now.  Kurt Thomas broke his foot in quite possibly the most important game of the year that we covered earlier.  Marcus Camby has missed a bunch of time as well.  Yet, this Knicks team seems to have a resiliency that we haven't seen in years.  They bounce back when they go on losing streaks.  They don't seem like they are ever out of a game.  They don't act intimidated against teams that are perceived superior.

New York is 5-2 against the Spurs, the Thunder and the Heat.  They have shown they can play with the NBA's best.  They went through some rough patches, but all great teams do.  If the Knicks can keep this roll going then there will be another team the analysts will proclaim as a contender.  There will always be naysayers, but this run is something we haven't felt in NY basketball in a long time.  It is fitting that Knicks legend Bernard King was finally announced as a Hall of Famer on Monday, because this could be the best Knicks team there has been since the days King used to magnify the MSG crowd.  Hopefully Carmelo can give us some similar moments.

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