Winners of six straight and suddenly looking a bit more like the team that started the season with an 18-5 record, the New York Knicks have been riding high despite the absence of Tyson Chandler. And with the news that the Knicks center isn't certain to return anytime soon, we'll find out how much longer Carmelo Anthony and Co. can keep up their recent run without their defensive anchor.
According to Jared Zwerling of ESPN, Knicks coach Mike Woodson told ESPN Radio in New York that Chandler would return before the playoffs. Beyond that fuzzy timeline, Woodson didn't elaborate on the specifics of Chandler's recovery from the bulging disc in his neck.
So assuming Chandler misses at least a few more games, it's worth discussing whether or not the Knicks can sustain their solid play as of late.
To do that, we'll have to take a look at exactly what New York has been doing in the eight games Chandler has missed.
First of all, Kenyon Martin's able work as Chandler's replacement can't be ignored. The late-season addition has averaged 10.8 points and 6.4 rebounds while shooting 66 percent from the floor since Chandler went down.
Per Zwerling, Woodson said:
Kenyon Martin has really, really helped our team. I mean, the fact that we're so beat up at the big spots. He's been a major plus for our ballclub and anchoring our defense inside and making plays offensively out of the pick-and-roll sets. I mean, it's just been great to have him.
Woodson is right; Martin has provided a huge boost for the Knicks' paper-thin frontcourt rotation. But really, it seems unlikely that the 35-year-old power forward will continue to hold down the paint with little support behind him.
Besides, Martin has only been the third-most significant factor in New York's success sans Chandler.
November in New York, Part Deux
More important than an aged power forward somehow controlling the Knicks' interior has been a return by New York's offense to its lofty November levels of production.
In their past eight games, the Knicks have posted an offensive rating of 110.9 points per 100 possessions. That figure is about three points better than New York's overall rate on the season and is actually better than the Miami Heat's NBA-leading season mark of 110.5.
An improvement from long range (38.5 percent over the past eight games) has certainly helped, as has J.R. Smith's sudden willingness to attack the basket.
The Knicks' improved offense is something of a strange phenomenon, though, as the team has actually played far more efficiently on that end this year when Chandler has been on the floor. Per NBA.com, the Knicks post a 110.2 offensive rating with Chandler in the lineup. With him on the bench, New York's rating dips all the way to 103.4.
In summation, the Knicks have been playing some of their best offensive basketball of the season without one of the players whom the numbers show to be among their most offensively valuable. If you're thinking there must be more to this picture, you're right.
And it's pretty simple.
Strength of Schedule
The Knicks have won six games in a row, but only one of them came against a team that was particularly dangerous. The Utah Jazz were already coming apart at the seams when the Knicks logged a 90-83 win over them on March 18.
Then New York notched an easy victory over the Orlando Magic and two more against the similarly hapless Toronto Raptors. After beating a Celtics team that was playing without Kevin Garnett and struggling to stay above .500, the Knicks collected their lone impressive win of the streak: a 108-101 defeat of the Memphis Grizzlies on March 27.
So, it appears the best explanation for the Knicks' solid play is the simplest one: They haven't played anybody.
Well Then, How Much Longer Will It Last?
The short answer to the likely length of New York's continued run is "two games."
The Charlotte Bobcats and Celtics visit Madison Square Garden next, meaning the Knicks have a pair of winnable games ahead of them. After that, though, things will get real in a hurry.
Starting April 2, the Knicks will face the Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks and Oklahoma City Thunder in succession. If New York manages to hold up against that quartet without Chandler, there'll be a reason to start believing something has actually changed with the Knicks.
What's more likely to happen during that four-game stretch is that the open looks New York has been getting won't be as readily available. In addition, Martin probably won't find it so easy to masquerade as a center against the attacking hordes he'll soon be facing.
Plenty of good has come out of the Knicks' recent streak: Martin has proved himself to be a viable rotation player and Smith seems to have figured out he's more effective when attacking the rim. But looking at the past eight games and assuming New York has somehow improved without Chandler is a bridge too far.
When the opponents get tougher and the games start to matter more, New York is going to need its center.