With 34 games gone in the 2012-13 NBA season, the New York Knicks have started 23-11. The record is good enough for second place in the Eastern Conference. The record is also good enough to shock much of the basketball world after the Knicks finished seventh in the conference last season.
The fast start happened for several reasons. Carmelo Anthony is playing like an MVP. J.R. Smith is playing like a Sixth Man of the Year. Tyson Chandler continues to be his usual outstanding self and Jason Kidd has risen to the challenge. Leading the league in turnovers forced and playing suffocating defense have hugely contributed as well.
However, reasons have started to pop up for many to believe the trend will end. The return of Amar'e Stoudemire causes many to doubt he and 'Melo can finally play together. Other reasons include injuries to key players such as Raymond Felton and the fact that this is the oldest squad in the history of the league. Rebounding has also been an issue.
With 48 games to go, it is extremely unlikely that the Knicks will fall out of the playoffs, but where will they finish by season's end?
Of the 48 remaining showdowns on New York's schedule, 10 will be played against division rivals. New York has taken out Brooklyn each of the last two meetings with big performances from 'Melo and strong shooting. Brooklyn is still figuring it out, so expect a win at home for the Knicks. Against Boston, New York will look to avenge its series-opening loss, but the physical play of the Celtics combined with the the return of Rajon Rondo will make taking more than two of the three games very difficult.
Against the other two foes, the 76ers and the Raptors, New York will be heavily favored. Without Bynum, Philadelphia quite simply isn't nearly as dangerous as it was last season and the Raptors are still are sitting at the bottom of the division. However, we're talking about basketball, so there will be a slip-up or two for New York.
Projected Record: 7-3
NON-DIVISION CONFERENCE GAMES: Indiana Pacers (January 10, February 20 and April 14), Chicago Bulls (January 11 and April 11), Detroit Pistons (January 17, February 4 and March 6), Atlanta Hawks (January 27, April 3 and April 17), Orlando Magic (January 30 and March 20), Milwaukee Bucks (February 1 and April 5), Washington Wizards (February 6, March 1 and April 9), Miami Heat (March 3 and April 2), Cleveland Cavaliers (March 4 and April 12), Charlotte Bobcats (March 29 and April 13)
When the Knicks aren't playing against division rivals, they will be facing off against conference rivals in 24 of their last 38 games. In that mix is a very wide variety of matchups.
You have the Chicago Bulls who have now shaken up the Knicks twice. Their aggressive play, suffocating defense and imminent return of Derrick Rose will make it very difficult for New York to do better than split the series.
However, there are also showdowns against big teams New York has taken down already. The Miami Heat have now fallen to New York twice by a combined margin of 40 points, but as the season wears on New York will likely look to split the two remaining games against a team heating up to defend its title.
The Pacers have also already fallen to New York, but the rivalry will spice up in the remaining three games. Stoudemire will need to help Chandler inside if New York wants to take the series. Finally, the Bucks will look to avenge an earlier loss as well, but the return of Iman Shumpert will limit their much-needed guard play which will free up New York on offense.
When the Knicks face the Hawks twice late in the season, the two could very well be fighting for a top three seed. New York will need to spread the floor and get good interior play in order to stop Atlanta.
Fortunately for Knicks fans, there are also some games in there that will heavily favor them. The Pistons, Magic, Wizards, Cavaliers and Bobcats will all be looking to upset New York. As was the case with division games, New York will undoubtedly drop a couple of these, but the Knicks have been very good so far at taking care of business. Mediocre defenses simply can't stop Carmelo.
Projected Record: 15-9
NON-CONFERENCE GAMES: New Orleans Hornets (January 13), Sacramento Kings (February 2), Minnesota Timberwolves (February 8), Los Angeles Clippers (February 10 and March 17), Golden State Warriors (February 27 and March 11), Denver Nuggets (March 13), Portland Trailblazers (March 14), Utah Jazz (March 9 and March 17), Memphis Grizzlies (March 27), Oklahoma City Thunder (March 7 and April 7)
To round out their 82 games, New York will have 14 more games against teams playing in the Western Conference. Due to the nature of the league, there will once more be a wide range of teams on the schedule.
There are season-defining matchups against contenders such as the Thunder, the Clippers and the Grizzles. Memphis' physical play handed New York its first loss of the season, and the unreal talent present on the other two squads make them nearly unbeatable on paper. New York will have something to prove and has stepped up in big games so far, but taking more than two of these five games would already be a huge step up for New York based on the past few seasons.
Aside from facing the big contenders, New York has quite a few games in this bunch that will serve to determine if the Knicks are truly above the middle of the pack. The Nuggets, Timberwolves, Warriors, Jazz and Trail Blazers are all outside of the top four in the West, but they all present real challenges every night.
The Knicks have started the year at 9-7 against teams from the West, so they will need to step it up here. Carmelo will be himself, but shots need to fall from outside and turnovers need to be forced on defense. More importantly though, the big guys need to help Chandler out with rebounding.
Finally, the Knicks have games against the Hornets and Kings that they are expected to win. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to take care of business. Considering we're talking about only two games here, a loss would be unacceptable.
Projected Record: 7-7
FINAL REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 52-30
Needless to say, a huge improvement on last season and reason enough to bring hope of a title back to the Garden.