Resurgent Knicks Look To Take Playoff Leap

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Who would’ve ever thought that a team flirting with mediocrity would have New York sports fans so euphoric? Such is life when you live in a region where the championship drought for teams in the four major sports stands at five years.

To be fair, these new New York Knicks are something to behold. Suddenly they’ve become the embodiment of teamwork, utilizing effective passing all in the spirit of trust—the organization’s favorite buzzword these days. The leader of this fresh, team-first philosophy is the oft-maligned Carmelo Anthony, who for years has been the target of biting criticism from observers outraged at his perceived lack of leadership.

This is the same Anthony who has never played alongside another star player. The best scorer he’s ever had running up the court with him was (gulp) J.R. Smith, the mercurial shooting guard whose affinity for lettin’ ’em fly will never be questioned—by anyone. J.R. Smith is now on LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, where, on a good night, he’s the third best scorer behind James himself. So maybe the Knicks star scorer is not to blame for the team’s maladies since he forced his way to the Garden.

Anthony deserves credit for keeping the team afloat during the first half of the season, putting the Knicks in position to sneak their way into the postseason by embracing the role of facilitator. At the halfway mark, the Knicks stand at 20-21, and just completed what could’ve been a season-crushing stretch, but instead won five of their last seven, which included a one-point loss to the dominant San Antonio Spurs on their home court where they remain undefeated.

The Knicks have already surpassed last year’s historically bad winning mark (17) and appear to be a resurgent franchise. It didn’t look that way after their embarrassing 27-point defeat to the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 1. But the team showed some mettle by knocking off the Hawks twice in as many games and followed that up with an impressive victory over the Heat in Miami. They proceeded to run over the over-hyped Milwaukee Bucks and then held off the upstart Boston Celtics in a game that felt very much like a playoff matchup. Instead of buckling under pressure as has been customary for James Dolan’s franchise, these stubborn Knicks refused to relinquish their dwindling lead down the stretch, even with Anthony going down early with an ankle injury and Kristaps Porzingis fouling out.

Although the Knicks were able to hold on and win Tuesday against Boston, it was clear they were missing Anthony. Among the laundry list of complaints alleged NBA fans have regarding Anthony is his defense. Aside from sharing the ball on offense, leading to uncontested baskets, the Knicks have displayed some fortitude on defense. The bulk of the credit has gone to Porzingis and big man Robin Lopez for their ability to defend the basket with their height, but Anthony has been the glue keeping things together. In their victories over the Hawks (twice), Heat, and Bucks, the Knicks gave up 97, 101, 90, and 88 points, respectively. Against the Celtics, the Knicks held them to 49 points in the first half and then gave up 65 points in a second half in which Anthony was relegated to the bench. On Wednesday, the lowly Nets were able to drop 110 points on the Knicks, who were without Anthony, as he was recovering from Tuesday’s ankle injury.

Following the loss to the Nets, Porzingis addressed Anthony’s absence, saying “He kind of creates a lot of situations for us. He gets the ball, he’s getting the defense to be tighter.”

While Porzingis has been rightfully showered with superlatives all season, it’s Anthony who has been the catalyst. He’s taken less shots than he has in his entire career and his scoring average is nearly four points below his career average. He’s also distributing the ball more than ever.

As currently constructed, the Knicks are not primed for a significant postseason run. They need another scorer they can count on and an athletic point guard capable of pushing the tempo. Despite missing these key components, the Knicks should still advance to the postseason. And if they continue playing unselfish ball, buoyed by Anthony, there’s a few teams that no doubt will be uncomfortable when they realize these are not the same old Knicks.