NEW YORK — Last night in Orlando, the Knicks utilized a balanced attack to defeat the Magic, 96-80. The victory giave them a record of 28-27 on the season and improved their lead over the Milwaukee Bucks to 1 1/2 games for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Prior to the game, Stan Van Gundy offered this, “You don’t want to face the Knicks in the playoffs because Carmelo scares the hell out of you.”
(And yes, he did offer a lot more than that).
As right as Van Gundy may be, the Knicks are barely clinging to their playoff spot.
Wanna talk about fear? Let’s look at Anthony. You don’t think he’s driven by the fact that he’s never missed the NBA’s postseason party in his nine-year career? If you don’t think that’s part of what’s driving him, you’re wrong.
And while “fear” may not be the appropriate noun to sum up the Chicago Bulls’ feelings toward meeting the Knicks in the first round of this year’s playoffs, I’m willing to bet that “excited” is equally erroneous.
The Bulls don’t want to see the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs because they know the Knicks can beat them in a seven-game series.
Yes, I said it. And before we continue, I’ll reiterate: the Knicks can, meaning that they could—under the right circumstances. Not that they will. There are a few reasons why. And no, me being a New Yorker isn’t one of them.
The Bulls are 43-13 and are 14 1/2 games better than the Knicks. Their records are indicative of teams that are on different plateaus. But the Knicks’ record isn’t indicative of the team they have become under Mike Woodson. It doesn’t represent who they are today.
Woodson has been the coach of the Knicks for 13 games and the results speak volumes. The Knicks are 10-3 and have surrendered just 87.8 points per game while holding their opponents to an average of 42 percent shooting from the field.
Obviously, the sample size is too small to declare Woodson’s Knicks the best defensive team in the league, but those numbers—in the unlikely event that they’d stick for an entire season—would be tops in the league. Entering play Thursday night, of all teams in the league, the Philadelphia 76ers were giving up the fewest points per game at 88.2 and the Boston Celtics were tops in the league in the realm of opponents’ field-goal percentage at 42 percent.
Over their past 13 contests, the Knicks are giving up fewer points than the stingiest defense in the league and are equaling the best team in the league in terms of opponents’ field-goal percentage. That’s no fluke.
Woodson’s Knicks are—at the very least—a team that cares about defense.
So yeah, they can stop other teams from scoring, but they’ll only go as far as Anthony can take them. Right?
Follow me here: Ever heard of the term “regression to the mean”? It’s a simple statistical theory that basically says as a sample size gets bigger, the truth will come out. For example, if Steve Novak is a career 50 percent shooter from behind the arc, going 4-of-5 in one game simply means that he will probably only make one of his next five. And as that sample size grows, we’ll get closer to the truth.
To make it even simpler: Regression to the mean says that for every “hot night,” you’ll get a “cold night,” and end up right where you’re supposed to be – in the middle.
I hear sports statisticians mention regression to the mean, but never mention the opposite: progression to the mean. How many times have we seen a great player have a terrible first half and a lights-out second half? Doesn’t it happen all the time? When a player like Amar’e Stoudemire or Anthony goes through a funk, why are we so quick to write them off and label them as “overrated”?
Give them the opportunity to progress, I say.
So if you asked me if I was surprised that – over the Knicks’ past six games – Anthony is averaging 27.7 points on 48 percent shooting, I’d say no. I’ve known that Anthony has been nursing multiple injuries all season long and he has remained confident and steadfast, despite his struggles. Last season, in 27 games with the Knicks, Anthony averaged 26.3 points on 46 percent shooting. This season, he’s averaging 21.1 points on 41 percent shooting.
But he’s progressing, he’s leading, and he’s playing some of the best two-way basketball we’ve seen from him in quite some time. As the season winds down, I’m willing to bet that on the offensive end, the midrange jumper will continue to fall and that Anthony will continue to make wise decisions with the ball. On the defensive end, he’ll continue to rotate, be engaged, and compete.
Clearly, though, one man can’t do it all. That’s why the supporting cast that GM Glen Grunwald has assembled is so important. The Knicks have managed to survive key injuries to Jared Jeffries, Stoudemire, and Jeremy Lin because they have a wealth of talented bodies on the roster. That was very evident in last night’s victory over the Magic; five Knicks scored in double figures and two others had nine points each.
And although Anthony has been the epicenter of the offense, it’s been nearly impossible for the opposition to prepare for the “other” guy, because they don’t know who he is. Since Stoudemire last played on March 24, Tyson Chandler, Baron Davis, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Landry Fields, and even Toney Douglas have all been the second-leading scorer in at least one game for the Knicks. There’s strength in numbers, and in this league, numbers get wins.
Now, I’d be silly to not acknowledge that the Bulls have much of the same strengths as these Knicks. It’s also true that the Bulls have the top record in the NBA. But last night, TNT’s Reggie Miller mentioned that Derrick Rose had some minor internal bleeding in his groin area and that it was recently learned that his extended absence is due to the fact that his groin injury is more serious than initially thought. As of now, Rose plans to play Sunday at Madison Square Garden, but we can’t ignore the fact that he’s missed 22 total games this season, including the last 12.
In this lockout-truncated season, a deep team that plays great defense can win on almost any night. The Bulls have that formula and have proven to be one of the league’s top teams.
But even still, I can’t say I wouldn’t give the Knicks a puncher’s chance to knock them out.
Although the Knicks are battling for the eighth and final playoff spot, they’re far from a typical eighth seed. Rose knows that, as well. That’s probably why – after missing 12 straight games – he’s doing all he can to be ready to face the Knicks on Easter Sunday.
I’m sure he and the Bulls would like nothing more than to beat the Knicks twice (they meet again Tuesday night) and play a major role in causing them to miss the playoffs.
Because these Knicks play defense, their franchise player is percolating, and they have some serious depth. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, without a healthy Rose in the playoffs, the Bulls are vulnerable. And for sure, they are beatable. Even in the first round.
Anything is possible, just ask Pat Riley and the 1999 Miami Heat.
Moke Hamilton covers the New York Knicks for SheridanHoops.com and is the Deputy Editor for CHARGED.fm. For the latest on the New York Knicks and all things NBA, follow him on Twitter.