With less than 20 games to go, the Eastern Conference playoff picture is looking close to set. We’re pretty sure who the eight teams are going to be, and with the New York Knicks playing their worst basketball of the season and propping up a roster filled with pain, a series against any one of the other seven is not going to be easy.
The Knicks are desperate to get out of the first round, and their best chance is to hang on to a top-four seed, which is guaranteed with an Atlantic Division title. But with the Brooklyn Nets just one game behind now, even that is at stake.
Amar’e Stoudemire is gone for the duration, and Rasheed Wallace isn’t around any longer to contribute his size.
Marcus Camby has managed less than 200 minutes total. Kenyon Martin has been serviceable, but he’s not enough to change the Knicks’ course.
Ronnie Brewer is gone, Iman Shumpert has been lacking and James White is awful, so the magic at the start of the season with Carmelo Anthony at the 4 has disappeared.
And that’s when Anthony is playing. According to ESPN, “He will have the knee drained, but has no timetable for a return.” We’ve heard that before.
Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton, that dynamic backcourt of the first 30 games, have fallen off.
Now Tyson Chandler is hurt, too, and Kurt Thomas is getting the start.
The Knicks are in trouble. Any way you look at it, the postseason is going to be an uphill battle.
Of the seven opposing playoff teams, the Knicks are favored most against these three, but anything can happen. And there are still five games left to play against them. Results down the stretch will help us assess with greater accuracy how this current New York team will look come playoff time.
Milwaukee Bucks (2-0, Apr. 5)
The Knicks have relatively manhandled the Milwaukee Bucks, by 14 and 10 points in the two games played. The second game did require a comeback on the strengths of Tyson Chandler’s 20 rebounds and Amar’e Stoudemire’s 17 points off the bench.
Assuming Chandler returns healthy and the Knicks can pick up some of those points off the bench, which they can, New York should take this series.
The thing is, as of now, Milwaukee is a distant eighth seed—a bit like Pluto compared to the rest of the solar system. That would mean a first-round matchup with the Miami Heat instead for the Bucks.
Atlanta Hawks (1-0, Apr. 3, Apr. 17)
The Hawks were a threat to the second seed just two weeks ago. Now they are fighting to stave off coming in seventh.
The Knicks made 16 three-pointers (at 59 percent) in their win against the Hawks in January. Anthony made nine of those, accumulating 42 points for the night. Stoudemire again was a presence with 18 points. Chandler was neutralized. The Hawks shot the lights out at 60 percent.
This is not your average game to extrapolate from, but on paper the Knicks still edge the Hawks. If New York can snag the second seed, then they will be ready to beat a seventh-seeded Atlanta team (and can help their cause with two head-to-heads left).
Boston Celtics (1-1, Mar. 26, Mar. 31)
The always troublesome Boston Celtics have begun to give way to the Knicks. The two split the season series in 2011-12 and look destined to do it again after years of Celtics dominance (17-3 the five years prior).
Nothing is for sure, though. Boston is actually playing better without Rajon Rondo, going from 20-23 to 35-29 since his season-ending injury. Of the three teams a mostly-healthy New York team should be favored over, the Celtics are the least we’d like to see.
But it gets worse than that.
The Knicks and Brooklyn Nets have played three tight contests and one not-so-tight game won by New York.
But after Brooklyn won the final matchup, the New York Post gave good reason for pause should these two face off in a best of seven:
The Nets are for real. Johnson (25 points) outplayed Anthony (29 points) down the stretch, rescuing the Nets with 10 fourth-quarter points. Brook Lopez outplayed Chandler, recording 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots to seven points, 11 rebounds and no blocks for Chandler. Williams was a steady force with 14 points and 12 assists.
And the Nets, quite unlike the Knicks, are at their healthiest. Lopez, Williams and Gerald Wallace have all shaken off injuries that slowed them down earlier this season.
Does anyone want to face the Indiana Pacers in the playoffs?
Indiana utterly demolished New York in their last meeting 125-91, probably the worst Knicks loss of the season.
But the Knicks hung tough in two other games, winning one when Indiana was playing like a different team in November.
The problem is, Indiana is peaking. The Pacers are 14-5 in their last 19, which includes two wins against the Chicago Bulls and the win against New York. They were the last team to defeat Miami before the Heat’s 20-game winning streak, too.
Defense wins championships, and here is the No. 2 defensive and No.1 rebounding team in the league. If the Pacers don't win it all, they will still be good enough to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Although the Pacers are the better team, the Knicks kneel to the Chicago Bulls.
Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose said Tuesday he still isn't sure if he will return to the court this season, but he said the last hurdle is mental rather than physical. "I think I can do everything, it's just me having the confidence to do it," Rose said.
It's a moot point. Last year, the Knicks went 1-3 against the Bulls with Rose, and the lone win was a one-point OT squeaker. It could get worse this season: The Knicks have lost all three matchups against the Bulls so far without Rose.
Despite having one of the worst offenses in the league (29th at 92.1 PPG), the Bulls have managed to average 104 points against the Knicks in the three games.
New York was able to wear down the third-best defense in the league (101 and 106 points in two of the losses) but was unable to finish off the games.
A fourth seed for the Knicks might find them facing a fifth-seeded Bulls team in the first round. Definitely not how New York wants to start the postseason.
For a while, it looked like the Knicks had the Miami Heat’s number, whooping them in two games by a combined 40 points, including one without Carmelo Anthony.
Ironically, the playoff-contending team that New York dominated more than any other turns out to be the one they (and everyone else in the NBA) most want to avoid.
It’s all about being hot at the right time. And that is exactly where Miami has been for more than a month, posting the third-longest winning streak in NBA history (which is still going as of March 15).
And that is exactly where the New York Knicks are not.
April will tell the tale of what to expect from New York in the postseason. The Knicks play Miami to start off the month and work their way through five games against contenders before knowing who they will face in Round 1.
Thankfully, it won't be Miami this time around. If the Knicks drop all the way to the eighth seed by then, it won't matter who they meet anyway.