3:11 pm Mar. 30, 2012
For weeks now, the Knicks appeared to have three possible outcomes to the end of their regular season.
They could stay where they are, finishing eighth in the Eastern Conference, or nip Boston to reach seventh. Either way, a matchup with Miami or Chicago would follow, without home-court advantage, and New York would be an overwhelming underdog to win a single round in the N.B.A. playoffs.
They could surge past Atlantic Division-leading Philadelphia, earning the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, and host a playoff series against a less challenging Eastern Conference foe, such as Indiana. They'd become a favorite to advance at least a round in the playoffs.
Or they could fade, lose out to Milwaukee in the race for the eighth spot, and miss the playoffs entirely.
So the chances weren't great that they'd get past the first round of the playoffs, thereby demonstrating the kind of improvement that could get coach Mike Woodson a chance to get his coaching job on a non-interim basis.
But Friday night's opponent, the Atlanta Hawks, offers the Knicks a kind of passage to playoff relevance.
The Hawks are 30-22, losers of two straight, and they currently hold the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. Their two losses this week, coupled with the Knicks' three-game winning streak, means New York is 3.5 games behind Atlanta. So if the Knicks can win and then take care of the strruggling Cavs on Saturday, and Atlanta loses at Philadelphia, they'll be 1.5 games out of the sixth-seed spot. They'll also have a game left against Atlanta next month.
As for the team between Atlanta and New York, the Boston Celtics, a pair of challenging games this weekend—at Minnesota Friday night, hosting Miami on Sunday—should make it difficult for the Celtics to take advantage of Atlanta faltering. At the very least, the weekend is an opportunity for the Knicks to make the race for sixth a three-team race.
How vital is that? Consider that the sixth seed is likely to be facing the Orlando Magic, rather than Miami or Chicago. While Orlando is a good team, the dropoff from the top two Eastern Conference teams is pretty significant, as demonstrated by the Knicks' emphatic win against them earlier this week.
So how can New York pull off the road win against Atlanta, particularly without the services, once again, of Jeremy Lin and Amar'e Stoudemire?
For one thing, Carmelo Anthony needs to be the effective player he was Wednesday night, not the slumping shooter he'd been for two months prior to that. Baron Davis needs to maximize his effectiveness when he's on the floor, and somebody, it really ought to be Josh Harrellson,needs to check the talented Atlanta power forward Josh Smith defensively. Fortunately, the Knicks are well-positioned to limit Joe Johnson with elite defender Iman Shumpert.
The Knicks routed Atlanta last month, 99-82 at Madison Square Garden, but were a vastly different team then, with a healthy Jeremy Lin and a more limited Carmelo Anthony, who was still playing himself back into shape after missing two weeks with a groin injury.
So we're in the familiar position of not knowing what the current version of the Knicks team is capable of. What we do know if who they have to get past.