5 Keys to Watch as Knicks Make Playoff Push in Season's 2nd Half

Jeremy Fuchs@@jaf78Correspondent IIIJanuary 22, 2013

5 Keys to Watch as Knicks Make Playoff Push in Season's 2nd Half

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    Fans of the New York Knicks have five important keys to watch as the team makes a playoff push in the season's second half.

    So far, the Knicks have defied expectations and become one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference.

    Still, the Knicks are not a perfect team and many questions abound surrounding the team's roster. How they answer them will determine how far they advance in the playoffs.

    Read on to find out what the five biggest keys are for the Knicks as they make a second half playoff push. 

When Do Injured Players Return?

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    The big injury so far for the Knicks has been Raymond Felton, who is out with a hand injury.  Felton injured his hand on December 25th. Since then, the Knicks have struggled, going 5-5.

    Felton seems ready to go, but the team is holding him back:

    "They won't let me play," Felton said before the Knicks practiced. "They're not even going to let me play when we first get back. So I'm looking at maybe Philly in Philly."

    The Philadelphia game he is referring to is on January 26th.

    The Knicks need Felton back—that is clear.

    He is a key cog in the Knicks' offense and is dynamic on the pick-and-roll. Felton's ability to drive leaves more space open for Carmelo Anthony on the perimeter.

    The sooner Felton can come back, the better. 

    The other big injury has been to Rasheed Wallace. Wallace provides excellent interior defense, but a stress fracture has kept him out since December 15th.

    His recovery has been slow. He has yet to run, and there are serious questions about whether or not he will return. As Coach Mike Woodson said:

    "He'll be back—but when, I don't know," Woodson said. "We're gradually trying to get him back where he can run again so he can get back in a uniform. But when, we don't know when yet."

    If Wallace cannot return, the Knicks will have to look outside for help.

    Kenyon Martin is one option, but he struggled last season with the Los Angeles Clippers, averaging 5.2 points and 4.3 rebounds.

    Tyson Chandler cannot do it alone, and Amar'e Stoudemire has yet to show he can be a capable post defender.

    If Wallace cannot go, the Knicks will have to be proactive and sign someone to help defend the low post.

How Will Iman Shumpert Play?

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    Iman Shumpert made his long-awaited season debut against the Pistons and scored eight points in 15 minutes.

    But Shumpert isn't really playing for his offense. He's there for lockdown perimeter defense. 

    Shumpert is needed because the Knicks have struggled guarding teams on the perimeter.

    Luckily for the Knicks, Shumpert is a top defender.

    In fact, according to Basketball-Reference, Shumpert had the sixth-best defensive season for a rookie in the Knicks' history. Ahead of him are such luminaries as Patrick Ewing and Mark Jackson.

    Shumpert can guard three positions, and that versatility will serve the team well.

    Ronnie Brewer was brought in as a defensive stopper, but he's spent more time on the bench than on the court, as he averages only 18 minutes per game.

    In time, Shumpert could see himself playing big minutes at the small forward position.

    But it must be cautioned—Shumpert is coming off an ACL injury. There is no guarantee that he will retain his athleticism.

    The more game time he has, the better. But it's foolish to expect him to be a defensive stud right away.

    The faster he can get in game shape and game mode, the better off the Knicks will be. 

Which Amar'e Will Show Up?

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    Amar'e Stoudemire has finally returned from injury.

    But he hasn't delivered as expected.

    In eight games, Stoudemire is averaging 10.4 points per game and 3.1 rebounds in nearly 21 minutes of action.

    Stoudemire does not look to have his same trademark explosiveness. He's had a few plays where he screams down the lane and throws it down with authority, but not nearly as much.

    He's also been downright terrible on defense.  He seems confused and is never in the right place at the right time.

    We know that Amar'e can put up big offensive stats. He's capable of that, and he should be able to reach some of his past numbers with more time.

    On defense, though, the Knicks really need him.

    The interior defense is lacking, and if Stoudemire could contribute anything, then it's an improvement.

    The Knicks have to hope for the Amar'e of a few years ago, not the Amar'e of last year.

    If they can get the former, then they'll be adding a legitimate star off the bench. 

Who Will Take Load Off of Carmelo Anthony?

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    J.R. Smith has been terrific off the bench this season.  In 38 games, he's averaging 16.7 points, which is well above his career average.

    The Knicks need that to be sustainable and need Smith to continue that through the rest of the season.

    His secondary scoring is so important because the rest of the bench is lacking.

    Steve Novak, a revelation a season ago, is averaging only 7.6 points per game and is shooting 44% from three, down from last year's 47%.

    Chris Copeland has been a nice find and is averaging nearly seven points a game.  But he's untested and doesn't offer much more than Novak does.

    At the moment, Smith has to keep his incredible pace going.

    The Knicks cannot rely solely on Carmelo Anthony to produce. They need Smith and others to shoulder a bit of the load. 

Carmelo Anthony

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    The ultimate key for this team—as it always has been, as it always will be—is Carmelo Anthony. 

    He's been great this year, averaging 29.2 points per game. He's shooting 42% from three-point land, which is well above his career average of 33%.

    Is this sustainable?

    The Knicks need it to be

    They can't function without Anthony dominating. He is the reason for the success they have had this year, and he will be the reason for any playoff run they make.

    If Anthony can continue his great play, elevating his performances in the biggest games, then there is no reason why the Knicks cannot make a deep playoff run.

    But if he struggles, or if his three-point proficiency regresses to the mean, then the Knicks are in trouble.

    Anthony holds this team's destiny in his hands.  Can he handle it?

    How he responds is the biggest key of the season.