Between fanciful predictions about the New York Knicks running the table and dire warnings about a plummet far out of playoff contention, there is a broad middle ground of realistic best and worst case scenarios for the Knicks in the final stretch.
Although they are in a lockout-shortened season, the Knicks have managed to squeeze in a number of eras into this compressed schedule, and it is important to take stock of their ebbs and flows before laying out predictive possibilities for what is still to come.
The Knicks started the year with high hopes that they could go the championship distance by having Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire fill up the hoop. They sputtered early.
The battery looked nearly dead when they got a sudden and completely unexpected jump from an inexperienced NBA point guard groomed in two less renowned leagues: the Ivy league and the D-League. With Jeremy Lin running the show, the Knicks looked like they were headed to a high playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Lin drove the Knicks to a seven game winning streak, but they went into a tailspin of losses that were as dispiriting as "Linsanity" had been inspiring.
In the wake of the Knick nosedive, then-coach Mike D'Antoni helped spur yet another era by resigning and leaving Mike Woodson to steer the course for the rest of the season.
Woodson has shown that the Knicks are in capable hands with him at the helm, leading the once derailed Knicks back onto a winning track.
The following four possibilities for the final results of the regular season are ranked from least to most likely, and worst to best case scenarios, based on current patterns of play for both the Knicks and their key opponents.
Much to the dismay of Golden State Warrior fans, the Milwaukee Bucks recently acquired the offensive firepower of Monta Ellis, adding another scorer to a squad that is already vigorously coached by Scott Skiles at the defensive end of the floor.
Does the backcourt tandem of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis now give the Bucks enough scoring and playmaking proficiency to match their defensive tenacity and to thus secure the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race?
Well, the Bucks and Knicks are both winning at impressive rates: the Bucks have won six in a row, and the Knicks have put together a string of five straight victories, including road wins over both the Pacers and the Sixers.
The difference between these two surging teams could come down to a New York Knick X factor: Jared Jeffries.
When backup center Jeffries has been out with injury, the Knicks have occasionally melted into the kind of swiss-cheese defense that makes hungry slashers on opposing teams salivate. Granted Jeffries was injured on the bench at the same time that Tyson Chandler was waiting for a hamstring to heal, but make no mistake about it, the Knicks sorely miss Jeffries's commitment to rebounding and defense when he is not on the floor.
The Knicks' current winning streak not only coincides with the coaching change, but also with Jeffries's return to action. But in a road win against the Sixers on March 21, Jeffries had to hobble toward the locker room.
If Jeffries is plagued with recurring injuries down the stretch, the Bucks chances to secure the eight seed significantly improve.
Even in such a scenario, however, New York currently has too much offensive talent and general defensive will to succumb to another listless slide out of playoff contention.
This fight for the eighth spot will come down to both talent and desire; these teams look evenly matched in the latter category, but the Knicks have a deeper and more talented squad and are likely to outlast even a formidable team like the Bucks.
Before the Knicks' most recent resurgence, a lot of Knicks fans would have been happy placing this scenario in the best case category. With the Knicks now committed to 48 minutes of active defense, however, it is likely that most Knick players would rank regular season closure at the eight spot as an underachievement.
The Knicks should be able to hold off the Bucks, and they now have enough cohesion at both ends of the floor to make a run at the seventh spot, currently occupied by the Boston Celtics.
The Boston Celtics are a resilient team composed of gritty veterans and a wily versatile point guard; they are not going to make it easy for any team to catch them—even a Knick squad nipping at their heels, just one game behind.
Still, even though it won't be easy, the Knicks should overtake the Celtics for the seventh playoff spot.
The Knicks will face 10 teams over .500, and the Celtics will square off against twelve of such teams. That is not a huge difference but in a race this tight, and considering the comparative youth of the Knicks in a lockout shortened season not made for older tired legs, the Knicks have an advantage.
Grabbing the seventh as opposed to the eighth seed, though, may be more of a moral than practical victory, since Chicago and Miami will race to the finish for the first spot in the East. A first round matchup against either of those teams will likely abruptly end the Knicks postseason hopes.
Knicks fans might be glad to hear that I think this is the least likely of the best case scenarios.
It is more likely at their current rate of play that the Knicks will soar even higher before the season is done.
The Philadelphia 76ers, current leaders of the Atlantic division, will face nine teams with records currently over .500, but the Sixers are 4-6 in their last 10 games, so they have little positive momentum carrying them into this final stretch.
What's more, by defeating the fading Sixers on March 21, the Knicks secured the head-to-head tiebreaker, should both teams finish with identical records.
The Knicks have tasted sour losses this year, and they now seem to be doing everything in their power to avoid that bitterness again.
On a day in which Tim Tebow was traded to the New York Jets, Jeremy Lin payed homage to his evangelical friend by hurling a host of shots that careened off the rim for the first three quarters of the game. In Tebow-like fashion, he then scored 16 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter.
Carmelo Anthony had another game in which he did not shoot the ball well, but nevertheless played hard at both ends of the floor.
That the Knick stars are staying engaged and undeterred even while having off nights speaks volumes about the character developing on this team.
Another great sign is that Amar'e Stoudemire has spring back in his leap; he finished strong at the rim throughout the evening against the Sixers, and also hustled back for a key block on defense.
In the Woodson era, the Knicks are not always playing well, but they are consistently playing hard. They have found their formula for winning.
It wasn't finding a perfect rotation, or figuring out who their go-to scorer would be in crunch time. It was deciding to leave it all on the floor every night for entire games.
With that commitment, they most likely win the Atlantic.