10:45 am Apr. 17, 2012
The New York Knicks, shifter of identities, survivors of a season filled with injuries and turmoil, have a playoff problem.
As it currently stands, they would make the N.B.A. playoffs, a solid achievement in a year filled with so many challenges. However, a season that began with significantly higher expectations than that would still feel like a disappointment if they don't win at least a round in the playoffs, something they haven't done in over a decade.
And as of right now, they are locked in a battle with the Philadelphia 76ers for the seventh and eighth seed. (Perhaps battle is too strong a word, considering Philadelphia's ongoing free fall.)
Neither spot is enviable. The seventh seed would face Miami in the first round, without home court advantage. The eighth seed would play Chicago, also without home court advantage.
The chance to do better is disappearing, and without a win Tuesday night against Boston, it will probably disappear for good.
New York is currently 4.5 games behind Boston. The Knicks have six games left, Boston has five. A loss Tuesday, and New York would be officially eliminated from winning the Atlantic Division, which carries with it a fourth seed, avoiding the two best teams in the conference, and even home court advantage in the first round.
But should New York win, despite a still-daunting 3.5 game deficit, they'd have a puncher's chance. The Knicks have a relatively soft schedule remaining after Boston, with games at New Jersey, at Cleveland and at Charlotte, along with a trip to face an Atlanta team the Knicks have dominated, and a home game against the Clippers offering the biggest test.
Boston, meanwhile, hosts Orlando, Miami and Milwaukee, with all three teams playing for something. The Celtics also travel to Atlanta, and the Hawks haven't been an easy matchup for the Celtics. Boston has beaten them twice, but by a total of just five points.
A win by New York on Tuesday night would also give the Knicks the tiebreaker. So if New York were to run the table, Boston would need to go 1-3 or 0-4 for the Knicks to overtake them.
It is a longshot, to be sure. And winning Tuesday is far from a certainty. The Celtics are playing extremely well, having won six of their past seven games. It isn't remotely clear who will guard Kevin Garnett, and Carmelo Anthony is likely to draw Paul Pierce. One shudders to think of what Rajon Rondo will do to a hobbled Baron Davis, or if the Knicks use Iman Shumpert on Rondo, how Avery Bradley will respond to all that open space.
But a loss tonight consigns the Knicks to a grim first playoff round, assuming they make the playoffs at all.