If you think I should leave a little room for a miracle collapse, John Hollinger would disagree. His playoff odds on ESPN.com gauges the Knicks chances of making the playoffs at a 100%. They are currently only one of five teams to garner this perfect rating regarding postseason probability.
With the last 37 games simply a tune-up for the playoffs, it's a good time to look ahead at how New York can maximize their chances to play basketball well into late May or even June.
One area that will play a large part in how they fare in the postseason is who will be a part of their crunch-time lineup. This is referring to the five players that will finish a close game for the Knicks, usually starting around the eight-minute mark of the fourth quarter. Since most playoff tilts are decided in the last five minutes of the game, the right crunch-time lineup is critical to a successful postseason run.
Currently, the Knicks crunch-time lineup usually consists of Raymond Felton, J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler. This lineup, however, has some serious defensive deficiencies and will not work in the playoffs where games tend to be half-court, lower-scoring affairs.
Here are two different, optimal crunch-time lineups for New York, based on the type of team they are facing in the playoffs.
Crunch-Time Lineup When Facing a Smaller Opponent (Team with an undersized center and a power forward that either is small for the position or plays small)
Probable playoff teams that would fit into this category are Miami, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Boston in the Eastern Conference. Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers can play both big and small late in games so they will fit in either category.
Anthony and Chandler will be in either lineup for obvious reasons. Felton will be on the floor in both lineups as well with one exception (more on this later) due to his unique combination of play-making ability (6.5 assists per game and the ability to penetrate off the dribble), outside shooting (he's making an adequate 36.5% of his three-point attempts) and defense.
That leaves two decisions for this lineup; what to do at shooting guard and small forward since Anthony will be playing the four. For small forward (or shooting guard since these two positions really can be interchangeable in this lineup), Mike Woodson needs to make the somewhat tough decision of playing Iman Shumpert over Smith. Sure Smith is the Knicks second leading scorer and, outside of Anthony, New York's best player at creating his own shot. Unfortunately, he is also a terrible defensive player as Hollinger breaks down, courtesy of ESPN Insider:
Defensively, Smith is awful. Synergy rated him as the worst player in the league in 2010-11; in 2011-12, he merely rated as the worst on his team. With his talent, he should be much better than this. The Knicks gave up more points with him on the court, just like all his teams have, and as usual his gambles were a big reason: Smith was third among shooting guards in steals per minute, but at the expense of ranking seventh in foul rate and likely first in 5-on-4s created by missed gambles.
Smith has been a little better this year defensively but Hollinger's analysis still mostly rings true. Shumpert, on the other hand, can be a shutdown defender at times. He is also capable of guarding point guards, shooting guards and even some small forwards given his unique combination of quickness and size (he's listed at 6' 5"). His only real weakness defensively is gambling too much for steals but more often than not his quickness allows him to recover before any real damage has been done. With defense at a premium late in tight playoff games, Shumpert has to be on the floor over Smith.
As for the other spot, Smith loses out again, this time to Jason Kidd. The 39-year-old future Hall of Famer is perfect for the Knicks in this lineup because he'll be playing opposite Iman Shumpert. Shumpert can cover for Kidd's lack of quickness and Kidd can guide the raw offensive talents of Shumpert with his amazing ability to facilitate and run an offense. Kidd's veteran leadership and championship pedigree also should help the Knicks deal with the heightened pressure and intensity that comes with late-game playoff moments.
Crunch-Time Lineup When Facing a Bigger Opponent (Team with a legitimate center. Other attributes can include a physical power forward and a larger small forward.)
Likely playoff teams that play big, along with the flexible Thunder and Clippers, are Chicago, Brooklyn and Indiana in the Eastern Conference and San Antonio and Memphis in a potential NBA Finals matchup.
With Anthony and Chandler as givens, lets look at point guard first. This spot will go to Felton unless the Knicks are playing a team that doesn't have an ultra-athletic, quick point guard. The Nets with Deron Williams and the Pacers with George Hill would fall into this category. Against these two teams, Kidd should be the choice since he can run an offense better than Felton and his lack of foot speed on the defensive-end isn't as much of an issue against Williams and Hill.
As for shooting guard, the nod again goes to Shumpert over J.R. Smith regardless of who is playing point guard.
That leaves power forward. If Rasheed Wallace is healthy come playoff time, he has to be in this lineup. His 6'11" frame and strong low-post defensive skills will be critical to guarding and rebounding against the likes of Carlos Boozer, David West, Zach Randolph, Tiago Splitter or Tim Duncan (assuming he's healthy) and even the Nets power forward three-headed monster of Reggie Evans, Andray Blatche and Kris Humphries.
There is a good chance, however, that Wallace won't be healthy come playoff time. He hasn't played since mid-December due to a foot injury and he's a 38-year-old player who was retired for two years before signing with the Knicks this season.
If he is unavailable, the spot has to go to Amar'e Stoudemire. STAT is a terrible defensive player but he is a pretty good rebounder and is still a scoring force on the offensive end.
Stoudemire in this lineup is not ideal because he will get torched defensively but the Knicks really don't have anyone else to call upon. Unless, of course, Marcus Camby finds a time-machine and goes back to steal his 1999 body. Hey, you never know, maybe Doc Brown is still in business.