The New York Knicks are a team in win-now mode this season, making the 2013 playoffs the most important few weeks of basketball the franchise will have had in years.
It has been a good season so far, with New York still in the race for the second seed in the Eastern Conference, but regular season success only means so much. This is a team whose focus has to be on the postseason.
With the roster being so old, and a few players hitting free agency this summer, there's no guarantee that the Knicks will be this deep next season. It's also hard to see the conference being quite so weak in a year's time, so such a high seeding won't be something they can bank on in the future.
The bottom line is that New York needs to make good on the opportunity it has this season, and to do so certain role players will need to step up to the plate.
New York can be sure its going to get great play from the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler, but that won't be enough to get the job done. Just as they did in November, other players will need to contribute at a high level, and play much more efficient basketball than they have been the last few months.
Here are three players in particular that can be difference-makers if they step it up by the time the playoffs roll around:
It's been a tough start for Iman Shumpert after making his season debut in January, and that's no surprise considering he's only just returned from a major knee injury.
As understandable as Shumpert's struggles have been, though, the Knicks need him to be much closer to full strength by playoff time.
The primary thing the Knicks need from Shumpert—just as it was last season—is defense. They can get by if he isn't perfect on offense, but having that shut-down defender on the perimeter is something that can really help their title chances.
On the bright side, Shumpert's defense has been slowly improving, so it isn't out of the question for him to be back in form by the postseason.
Mike Woodson has also made the move to play Shumpert at his natural shooting guard position, as a lot of his struggles can be pointed to him playing at small forward.
Shumpert simply doesn't have the height to take on small forwards, especially considering the injury situation, so getting him back in the backcourt is the first step to his return.
Offensively, Shumpert's shooting has been way off, although he has clearly improved his outside jumper. He's gone up from 30 percent to 34 percent shooting from outside the arc this season.
The real reason for his offensive struggles have been an inability to finish in the paint. According to 82games, his effective field goal percentage inside has gone down from 58 percent to 30 percent.
As we've established, Shumpert's offense isn't nearly as important as his defense, but having that guy who can make good cuts and finish inside—like Ronnie Brewer was doing in November—really opens things up for the team.
Erratic guard J.R. Smith was a borderline All-Star earlier in the season, but since then his play hasn't been up to par.
Just when we though he had turned the corner, Smith's inconsistency has returned, and that's a huge concern for the Knicks.
Unlike last season, Smith isn't a luxury player for the Knicks anymore. He's someone they need to produce efficiently and consistency, especially in the playoffs.
Smith is averaging a career-high 16.5 points this season—and just scored a season-high 36 against the Oklahoma City Thunder—but his 40 percent from the field this season just isn't good enough.
That's the worst he's shot since 2006, but there has to be a way he can keep up the scoring without missing so many shots.
For Smith, it really just comes down to shot selection and playing basketball. We saw in November and December just how good he can be when his head's in the game.
J.R. really has been the Knicks' x-factor in 2012-13, and that will be no different in the playoffs. An efficient Smith makes a big difference, and gives New York the advantage over a lot of its Eastern Conference competitors.
Despite rumors of a bigger move, the Knicks decided at the trade deadline only to bring in Kenyon Martin from free agency.
The Knicks gave up a solid defensive player in Ronnie Brewer to make room for Martin, so he's definitely someone who needs to prove he was a worthwhile pick-up.
With Rasheed Wallace out until at least the playoffs, the Knicks could really use the defensive leadership and physicality that K-Mart brings to the table. They just haven't been the same on that end of the floor since Sheed went down.
First things first for Martin, though, and he'll need to get in game shape before anything else. Then, he can start playing significant minutes, and be the defensive big the Knicks need him to be off the bench.
Martin may not be the same player he was with the Denver Nuggets or New Jersey Nets, but we saw last year with the Los Angeles Clippers that he can still be a productive player—especially when it comes to the postseason.
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