Can Surging Knicks Make the Playoffs?
The New York Knicks have made headlines for a variety of reasons during the 2013-14 NBA campaign. Strange suspensions, significant injuries, legal issues, trade rumors, free agency decisions and contract buyouts are just some of the things that the Knicks have had to deal with during this soap opera season.
However, even with all of the drama that has surrounded this team, New York remains in the Eastern Conference’s playoff hunt and has a realistic shot at qualifying for the postseason.
As the basketball world waits to see what Phil Jackson will do as the team’s president, whether Carmelo Anthony will remain with the squad long-term, if Raymond Felton’s gun charges stick and if any other craziness can emerge from New York this season, the team has been busy winning five consecutive games, which is tied for their longest win streak of the season. The distractions don’t seem to be affecting the on-court product at the moment, as the Knicks are producing at a very high level and seeming comfortable as a unit.
The recent victories put New York just three and a half games out of the eighth seed with 16 games remaining on the schedule. New York is currently 26-40, battling teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons for one of the final playoff spots in the conference.
While just making the playoffs may not seem like much of an accomplishment for a team that won 54 games last season and captured the No. 2 seed in the East, it’s surprising given the fact that New York has struggled mightily throughout the course of the season and found themselves much lower in the standings not too long ago.
Several weeks back, the playoffs seemed like a long shot for the Knicks, but New York has started to find a rhythm and has gotten plenty of help recently from Atlanta (lost 14 of their last 17), Detroit (lost 11 of their last 14) and Cleveland (lost seven of their last 10) among others. Playing in the dreadful East has certainly helped the Knicks, as they would currently be ranked 13th in the Western Conference ahead of only the Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz.
But there’s no question that the Knicks have been playing better as of late. Their five straight wins have all been by double digits, with an average margin of victory of 17.2 points. New York has been shooting the ball very well, and they’ve been winning with a balanced attack. Their defense has also been better, relatively speaking.
“Offensively and defensively, everybody [is playing] their part and [doing] what they had to do,” Anthony said. “It seems like everybody is starting to play their game and play with confidence at this point.”
“It’s kind of nice to see, cause all season long I’ve been preaching, we have so many different players, so many different lineups based on injuries,” Mike Woodson said of the team’s balance. “You know guys want to play. They complain they don’t get minutes, don’t get shots. I think when you are trying to build a team, guys got to understand it’s not about who’s getting all the shots, it’s not about who’s playing all the minutes, it’s what you do with the minutes and what you’re doing when you are in there… I’ve said it ever since I’ve been here as a coach – our second unit is just as important as the guys that start.”
For other fringe playoff teams, missing the postseason might actually be the better long-term move. What’s more valuable for a franchise: the chance to get swept in the first round by the Miami HEAT or Indiana Pacers or the opportunity to land a lottery pick in the talented 2014 NBA Draft? Playoff experience is important, but this may be the year to opt for the lottery pick. However, for the Knicks, they’re all-in on the playoffs since they traded their 2014 first-rounder to the Denver Nuggets in the Carmelo Anthony blockbuster deal back in February of 2011.
Making the playoffs would salvage New York’s forgettable season to some extent, and who knows what could happen once they lock down a spot in the East’s top eight? Come playoff time, records reset and anything can happen. If the Knicks continue to play at the high level they’ve displayed recently, they could be a tougher out than previously anticipated (especially if they can somehow climb to the sixth seed and avoid a first-round series against Indiana or Miami, although that seems unlikely). After the juggernaut Pacers and HEAT, the conference is wide open (only six East teams are above .500 on the season, compared to 10 teams out West.)
“We are a tough team to beat, and we’ve been shooting the hell out of the ball these last five games and our defense has been on par as well,” Woodson said. “It’s a good combination to have. We just got to continue to grow, take it one day at a time and see what happens.”
Teams that can “shoot the hell out of the ball” have gone on shocking postseason runs in the past. The third-seeded 2008-09 Orlando Magic surprisingly shot their way into the NBA Finals, beating more talented teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics. Last season, the sixth-seeded Golden State Warriors were the best shooting team in the league, which allowed them to upset the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs and give the San Antonio Spurs a hard fought six-game series.
The Knicks have the third-best three-point percentage in the NBA (39.4 percent), and their 104.7 points per 100 possessions ranks 11th in the league.
They also have one of the game’s best scorers in Anthony, who is currently averaging 28.1 points (ranked second in the NBA) while shooting 45.4 percent from the field and 41.8 percent from three-point range. The league’s reigning scoring champion has elevated his game recently, just as he did down the stretch last season. He averaged 31.5 points in February and has averaged 30.9 points since the All-Star break. Not to mention, he has been very well-rounded this year, averaging 8.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.6 blocks in addition to his scoring. As a result, Anthony’s efficiency rating is a career-high 24.99 (ranked eighth in the NBA) and he has a 17.7 estimated wins added (ranked fourth in the NBA, behind only Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kevin Love).
The team’s recent play is much closer to what was expected of the Knicks entering this season, when expectations were high and the team was talking about contending for the championship. Woodson recently said that these high quality performances are “kind of what we envisioned when we came out of camp,” but added that this season has been much more difficult than anyone could’ve predicted due to “all the ups and downs that we’ve had based on injuries” among other things. The team has been a disappointment, for sure, but it’s not easy to live up to lofty expectations when key player after key player has been sidelined.
Even with the team’s recent win streak, New York understands that making the playoffs won’t be easy. They dug themselves into a hole and find themselves trying to catch up to teams like Charlotte and Atlanta, while trying to stay atop Cleveland and Detroit in the standings – two teams that desperately want to end multi-year postseason droughts. As ugly as Eastern Conference basketball has been this season, the final stretch should be rather interesting as the playoff picture comes into focus.
“Our backs are against the wall right now, so there’s no room for error,” Woodson said. “We have to play each possession like it’s our last.”
“We control our own destiny,” Anthony said. “We want to win as many games as we can coming down this stretch and let the other teams worry about what they have to do.”
Even though it’s tempting, Anthony insists that the team isn’t watching the standings on a nightly basis. He believes the Knicks need to simply focus on the games on their schedule and the things that they can actually control, rather than stressing over what other teams are doing.
“Well, regardless of who we play, we’re just taking it one game at a time,” Anthony said. “These are teams that we’ve got to play, it’s on the schedule, so we don’t control that. The only thing we can control is whether we win or not.”
New York’s schedule isn’t too daunting. Seven of their remaining 16 games are against non-playoff teams, including bottom feeders like the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz. There are some difficult games late in the season, including contests against the Indiana Pacers, Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors, Miami HEAT, Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls, but some of those teams may be resting players by then. New York has the fifth-easiest remaining schedule of any team in the league, since their opponents’ win percentage is a combined 47 percent. Compare this to Atlanta, Cleveland and Detroit – three teams with tougher competition in the coming weeks – and it’s not hard to imagine the Knicks sneaking into the postseason despite the fact that this season has basically been a train wreck.
Jerryd Bayless Praises Rajon Rondo
In January, the Boston Celtics and Memphis Grizzlies agreed to a trade swapping Courtney Lee for Jerryd Bayless, and the latter has been getting accustomed to his new team in recent months.
The 25-year-old Bayless has been averaging 9.7 points, 3.3 assists and a steal in 24.7 minutes per game. Even though Bayless went from being on a playoff team in Memphis to a rebuilding team in Boston, he has been making the best of his situation and doing whatever he can to help the Celtics as they go through this transition period.
One player who has really impressed Bayless during his stint in Boston is Rajon Rondo.
In a recent blog post on JerrydBayless.com, the veteran point guard praised Boston’s veteran leader and the job that he has done on and off the court.
“As he works his way back, Rondo isn’t playing both games of back-to-backs this season,” Bayless wrote on his website. “On those nights that he’s not in the lineup, I’m playing more point, handling the ball the majority of the time. When that’s the case, it’s my duty is to facilitate for my teammates. I have to be the quarterback out there and call the plays, get everybody where they’re supposed to go and kind of run the whole show. When Rondo is in the lineup, obviously, he’s at the point, and I’m playing off the ball in more of a scoring role, which he facilitates. In that role, I’m more like a receiver, and Rondo’s the quarterback.”
In the past, Rondo didn’t have to be a vocal leader because he was surrounded by veterans like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Now, he has stepped into that role and taken some of Boston’s younger players under his wing.
“I wasn’t here when Pierce, Garnett and Allen were, but it seems like transitioning to being the team leader has come pretty naturally for Rondo,” Bayless said. “I think he has been preparing for it for a long time, and it shows. He’s a great leader. He’s able to lead vocally and through his actions. When there’s something that needs to be said, he’ll say it, and he leads by example every day. He’s one of the first to the gym and one of the last to leave. He definitely surpassed anything I would have thought.
“It’s been great not only getting to play with Rondo, but getting to know him. He is a very smart person, and a lot of the stuff that’s out there about him being tough to deal with is the farthest thing from the truth. He’s great with teammates and with our coach, Brad Stevens. I’ve I’ve had a great time being able to get to know him in the last couple months, and hopefully, we can grow as teammates for a long time.”