NEW YORK – With his team reeling, his star player allegedly failing to buy into his system, and an 18-24 record, Mike D’Antoni stepped down as coach of the New York Knicks this past Wednesday.
That day, after Mike Woodson was named interim head coach, the Knicks obliterated the Portland Trailblazers, 121-79. And last night, Woodson’s Knicks opened up a home-and-home with the Indiana Pacers by defeating them in Madison Square Garden, 115-100.
This past week, the Knicks were able to snap their six game losing streak and win back to back games for the first time since they defeated the Toronto Raptors and Sacramento Kings on February 14th and 15th, respectively.
In each of these past two games, Woodson’s Knicks have been active, alert, and desperate. They’ve played with passion and energy. They’ve finally looked like a team battling for a playoff spot.
Unfortunately, for them and their fans, it might be too little, too late.
The Knicks have dug themselves such a deep hole, at this point, it would be somewhat silly to expect them to qualify for the playoffs.
Sure, they have the same record as the Milwaukee Bucks, but their remaining schedule is tougher and they trail the Bucks in the season series, 2-0. And I’m sure Monta Ellis is going to have a thing or two to say about whether the Knicks will best the Bucks in the end.
So, rather than expecting to make the playoffs, Knicks fans should hope…
Hope that the hole they’ve dug for themselves through a lack of effort—though somewhat inexplicable—isn’t insurmountable.
Thus far, though it’s only been a glimpse, Woodson’s Knicks have given you reason to.
Hope that Woodson’s Knicks—the Knicks we saw on Wednesday and Friday—are the Knicks that will hang around for the rest of the season. Those guys are the ones that will earn this team an opportunity to shock the Chicago Bulls or Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. Not the listless bunch that we saw under D’Antoni.
And the reason why Knicks fans should hope and not expect comes down to one of the most basic analyses NBA pundits employ: the strength of schedule.
As it stands, with 22 games remaining, the Knicks and Bucks are each 20-24. For the Bucks, 13 of those games will be played at home in Milwaukee’s Bradley Center. For the Knicks, there will only be 11 more home games at Madison Square Garden.
Of the Bucks 22 remaining games, only nine of them are against teams that are currently above .500. For the Knicks? 12.
In early April, when most teams are exhausted from traveling, the Bucks will have a five game home stand that spans a week. During that stretch, four of their five opponents—the Cavaliers, Bobcats, Trailblazers, and Knicks—are currently below .500. The Knicks, meanwhile, have two three-game home stands, but of those six games, four of them—the Bucks, Orlando Magic, Miami Heat, and Boston Celtics—will be tough.
The Knicks will have to play teams that are currently leading their divisions four times. The Bucks? Only once.
Worse yet for the Knicks is the fact that with Ellis, the Bucks now feature a shooting guard that can light up the opposition for 30 to 40 points on any given night. If Scott Skiles can find an effective way to marry his skill set with the Bucks’ offensive scheme… Watch out.
So, you can slice it and dice it just about any way you’d like, the fact of the matter is that the Knicks have a fairly tough schedule remaining. Much tougher than the Bucks.
Any hope of the Knicks making the playoffs starts and ends with them finally fulfilling their immense potential as a team and—somehow—winning at least 15 of their final 22 games. That would make them a respectable 35-31 on the season and that would probably be good enough to qualify for the playoffs as the seventh or eighth seed.
For that to happen, they will need to play hard every night, play with urgency, and beat the teams they should beat.
Just a few short weeks ago, I wrote that the Knicks had done a surprisingly good job of building a deep bench. It was on display in each of their past two games. Against the Trailblazers, the Knicks bench scored a whopping 72 points. Against the Pacers? A slightly less-amazing 59.
If they’re to make the playoffs, they’ll need that bench scoring, too.
And although offense comes and goes, defense is all about effort and can be played well every night. Just ask the Chicago Bulls. They’ve beaten many teams—including the Miami Heat—without their best offensive player and reigning MVP, Derrick Rose. And they’ve done it with great defense.
Against both the Blazers and the Pacers, the Knicks got great defensive contributions from the entire team. Wing defenders were shooting gaps and clogging passing lanes and paint defenders were swiping, swatting, and taking charges. In each of the last two games, the Knicks held their opponents under 40 percent from the field and under 60 total points through three quarters. In each game, the fourth quarters were garbage time, so what happened in either of them is fairly irrelevant.
Tonight, when the Knicks complete their home-and-home series against the Pacers in Indianapolis, we will see if they brought their defense with them. The game will be quite a challenge since it’s the second night of a back-to-back and the Pacers will be seeking revenge for a humbling loss.
A win tonight might be indicative of a Knicks team that is finally ready to play.
Better late than never, I suppose.
After Friday’s victory, according to Amar’e Stoudemire, the team is focused and is looking forward to hopefully qualifying for the postseason. “We just wanna win, and to do that, we need to bring this effort every game,” he said, “We need to get back our spot in the playoffs.”
And as for Coach Woodson? He has much bigger plans than that. “I came here for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to try to win a title,” he said on Friday night. “We fell out of the playoff hunt and we’re trying to make the playoffs, and go deep in the playoffs, but we’ve gotta get there.”
Judging by the first two games of Woodson’s tenure as interim head coach, I’d say things have gotten off to a good start. There’s certainly reason… for hope.
The moral of this story is that—by virtue of the Bucks holding the tiebreaker—the Knicks are on the outside looking in. All season long, they’ve been inconsistent and unpredictable. That’s why, despite playing one of the NBA’s weaker schedules to date, they’ve only managed to win 20 games.
And until they prove otherwise, you have to expect that that’s who the Knicks are.
But in the interim, hope.
Hope that the fire, passion, and effort that we saw out of Mike Woodson’s team becomes the new norm.
Because if it does, the Knicks are a deep, dangerous team.
If it does, the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat might be the ones hoping…
Hoping they won’t have to play a dangerous Knicks team gelling at the right time.