12:38 pm Mar. 12, 20121
It is officially time for the New York Knicks to panic.
This isn't because of any broad conclusions about Carmelo Anthony, or Amar'e Stoudemire or how the two of them play together, or because of any premature jitters about Jeremy Lin's ability to be a starting N.B.A. point guard. And it certainly has nothing to do with tweets sent out by J.R. Smith.
It has to do with simple math.
Yes, the Knicks aren't playing well right now. They dropped a pair of games to Dallas and San Antonio with putrid defensive efforts, laying bare how reliant upon Tyson Chandler their defense really is.
And Sunday, in a game they simply had to win on their home floor against Atlantic Division leaders Philadelphia to have any realistic shot at the division title, New York played poorly on both ends, losing in a 106-94 rout.
The results, coupled with wins by both Milwaukee and Cleveland, leave the Knicks with this stark reality: If they don't find a way to start winning games, they won't simply be left with a mediocre seed in this year's playoffs—they'll be out of the playoffs altogether.
Here are the ugly numbers. The Knicks, thanks to yesterday's loss, are now 6.5 games behind the Sixers with 25 games to play. They are 3.5 games behind the Celtics. The Sixers hold the third seed while Boston is the seventh seed. As of right now, the Knicks would be the eighth and final team in the playoffs from the Eastern Conference.
However, the five-game losing streak from New York, coupled with recent wins by Milwaukee and Cleveland, have left the Knicks just a game ahead of both teams in the race for the final playoff spot. Those two teams are hardly streaking—both have records of 4-6 in their last ten, while New York checks in at 3-7. But they've played well enough, or rather New York has played poorly enough, to put that spot up for grabs.
The Knicks don’t really have an excuse for being locked in a death-match with Bucks or the Cavaliers, in terms of the talent each of the teams has available to it. Milwaukee is without center Andrew Bogut, and has managed to stay afloat on the efforts of point guard Brandon Jennings and power forward Ersan Ilyasova. Cleveland is largely a one-man band in Kyrie Irving, a talented rookie who was utterly outclassed by Jeremy Lin when the two faced off last month at Madison Square Garden.
But both Cleveland and Milwaukee have a relatively soft upcoming schedule, while things stay hard for the Knicks. The Bucks and Cavaliers both face New Jersey this week, along with a game against each other on Wednesday.
As for the Knicks, the Chicago Bulls loom on Monday night, followed by a solid Portland team, a home-and-home against Eastern Conference contender Indiana, a brief respite at home against Toronto, and then a trip down to face the Philadelphia team that utterly dominated them Sunday.
The reasons for New York's struggles vary game-to-game, which is a way of saying that the team is inconsistent. Carmelo Anthony was solid against San Antonio on Wednesday night and at times on Friday against Milwaukee and Sunday against Philadelphia, but seemed to disappear in the second and third quarters on Sunday before getting benched in the fourth.
Amar'e Stoudemire, who looked like he had found his form this past week, including 27 points and 11 rebounds against Milwaukee on Friday night, did almost nothing against Philadelphia Sunday, and sat for the fourth quarter as well.
Tyson Chandler, battling through wrist injuries, missed two games this week with a sore hamstring. He returned Sunday, but still wasn't 100 percent, either in terms of finishing on the offensive end or moving on the defensive end.
Jeremy Lin, after a 20-point, 13-assist game in Milwaukee on Friday night, shot only 5-for-18 on Sunday, putting up totals of 14 points and seven assists.
This Knicks team still looks on paper like an assemblage of talent that just need some time to coalesce. But they’re regressing, and time is precisely what they don’t have anymore.
A failure to qualify for the playoffs would likely mean the end of coach Mike D'Antoni's tenure in New York. The Knicks are limited in what else they can do: Wholesale changes will be awfully difficult for this team, saddled with expensive long-term contracts and over the salary cap. Instead, they’ll probably be relegated to yet another summer of frustration and unconstructive turmoil, followed by yet another rebuilding period under a new coach with a new system.
In other words, the Knicks need to start winning now. Or their new era will be over before it really even started.