Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks are off to a hot start. They are 4-0 and have won their games by an astounding 17 points on average. At the same time, they have faced a schedule that is far from weak. The three teams they have faced so far—the Miami Heat, the Dallas Mavericks and the Philadelphia 76ers twice—are all above .500.
In addition, the Knicks have been getting it done on both sides of the ball. They are third in the league in scoring while simultaneously first in the league in total defense. On Tuesday, the Knicks will be heavy favorites in Orlando against the 2-3 Magic, who are looking pretty weak with Dwight Howard no longer on their side.
However, Knicks fans should be looking ahead to Thursday. The real test of this teams caliber will come in San Antonio against the 6-1 Spurs.
The Spurs are in a lot of ways like the Knicks. Rather, they are the way the Knicks hope to become. They move the ball, find open threes, score like crazy and play solid team defense. Led by MVP-candidate and point guard Tony Parker, the Spurs lead the NBA in assists.
By default, the defending champion Miami Heat get the nod for 2012-13 favorites from most sources. But as recently as June, the Spurs were viewed as heavy favorites to win the 2012 title, riding a 20-game winning streak.
That wave of optimism crashed when the Oklahoma City Thunder pulled off a surprising upset in the Western Conference Finals. Nonetheless, the Spurs are essentially the same team that dominated the NBA for a three month period less than a year ago and should perhaps be viewed as this year's title favorites again.
Whether they are favorites or not, the Spurs are indisputably a top contender and are the best there is at playing the style of ball the Knicks are trying to adopt. Whether the Knicks can move the ball like the Spurs, shoot like the Spurs and use the extra pass like the Spurs are big questions heading into this game.
Short winning streaks do not often mean much in the NBA. The woeful New Orleans Hornets won four games in a row in the middle of last season, as did most NBA teams. Legitimacy comes from significant wins against top teams.
With wins in Orlando and San Antonio, the Knicks have the potential to move to 6-0 and would be the only NBA team to do so this year.
The goal for New York this season is not merely to make the playoffs. In the weak and shallow Eastern Conference, that is hardly an accomplishment. New York fans expect to see contention in the East. Doing that requires a big step up from the poor performances of last year. It means consistent defense and effort. Carmelo and the Knicks have done this for four games now. Will they be able to do it for 82?
The answers are not available yet, but they will begin to come into the light on Thursday. If the Knicks beat the Spurs in San Antonio, that will mean something, and no rational basketball fan will be able to maintain that New York is not a threat.