Posted Mar 22 2012 11:11AM
As with many things involving New York and its sports teams, the state of the Knicks is undergoing yet another exaggeration.
Allow us to use screaming newspaper headlines to describe the ebb and flow of a team that leads the NBA in scoring, as in, exclamation points:
"New York Bricks!" This was when the Knicks hit the skids, lost 11 of 13 and fell seven games under .500 in early February. The city was too busy with the Giants' Super Bowl run to notice, though.
"Jeremy Win!" The start of Linsanity, circa mid-February. Hell freezes over.
"Marsh-Melo!" In late February, all of New York seriously wondered if and when Carmelo Anthony would fit in. The early reviews were not positive. By comparison, "Spiderman" had a better opening on Broadway.
"D'Amn-toni!" Mike D'Antoni, out as coach, early March. Uh-oh. Total collapse coming.
"Star Search!" New coach Mike Woodson declares the Knicks will be more about the stars, less about Linsanity. The blasphemy of it all!
"2012 NBA Champions!" This was the feeling in the city Wednesday after the Knicks beat Philly for their fifth straight win. Hey, you know New Yorkers. They've been desperate since 1973.
Of course, the truth doesn't lie in any of these extremes. The Knicks weren't the 1986 Celtics when Jeremy Lin came out of nowhere and triggered a big win streak. Nor were they suddenly the 2011 Cavaliers when the bottom fell out two weeks ago. They are hardly title contenders, but not only should they make the playoffs, they can be a tough out for someone if the following happens:
Melo and Amar'e Stoudemire finally buy into the idea of defense.
Woodson doesn't destroy Lin's confidence.
The season really comes down to that. Taking it a step further, the immediate future of the Knicks depends on their designated stars and Lin.
"We can do whatever we put our minds to do," Stoudemire said. "If we stay focused, we have a great chance to win our division."
That idea was a stretch a week ago. Not so much now. The Knicks are three games behind the team they just beat, the Sixers, and there's still enough time left in the season to make a sprint to the finish. It starts with defense, which bailed out the Knicks when their shots didn't fall against the Sixers. Anthony shot 5-for-15 and Lin began the game missing 12 of 13 and yet the Knicks managed to put the Atlantic Division on alert.
Can they keep this defensive mindset, which was the reason Woodson was first hired as an assistant and then elevated as head coach? Although D'Antoni preached defense, his coaching resume wasn't built on stopping anyone.
Over the last five games the Knicks held teams under 90 points four times. The Sixers managed 79, just 11 points in the first quarter (they missed their first 14 shots) and shot 38 percent for the game.
"When we play defense like this," Tyson Chandler said after the Philly win, "we can beat any team in the league."
This spirit must begin with Anthony and Stoudemire, who don't exactly have defense in their genes. When the stars buy into defense, however, the rest of the team follows. This is the sacrifice Melo and Stoudemire must make. They're offensive players by nature who must somehow find the same amount of energy and ego for the other end of the floor. Otherwise, this mini-streak will only be a tease.
And that's where Woodson has helped. D'Antoni never connected with Anthony, especially during Linsanity, when Melo didn't get as many touches as he wanted. So it was natural for Woodson to wisely announce, upon taking the job, that the responsibility of carrying the Knicks must fall on Melo and Stoudemire, not a point guard dropped from the basketball heavens. It was a sly way of stroking their egos and prodding them to push themselves at both ends of the floor.
There is a risk, though. Woodson must make Lin feel important, too. He's a young point guard being pulled in a million directions. Lin isn't part of the problem, he's part of the solution, and that must be made clear by Woodson. Otherwise, he risks damaging the confidence of a young point guard who's still dealing with the magnitude of Linsanity.
Just 10 days ago, the Knicks were pounded at home by the Sixers while Anthony and Stoudemire sat on the bench in the fourth quarter and the fans booed the Knicks into the locker room. Clearly, something had to change. There's always a glorious honeymoon whenever a new coach takes over, and then reality settles in, one way or another. What the Knicks want to know is, what's their reality? In a season that's taken so many weird and wicked emotional swings, the Knicks are still searching for their true identity.
Maybe this is it. Maybe this is a team that, while not championship-driven or built, is a potential division winner that's willing to make the effort defensively to avoid a total collapse.
They're a team that nobody will want to face in the playoffs, assuming of course the Knicks get there.
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