Just in time, too. With the NBA playoffs barreling toward them faster than another Amar'e Stoudemire injury, the Knicks needed to regain the same poise that propelled them to a surprisingly dominant start.
After beginning the year 18-5, New York went 20-21 over its next 41 games. Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Stoudemire and just about every other player imaginable incurred some kind of injury, spurring an unrelenting debate.
Who were these Knicks? Were they the team we watched through the first 18 games of the season? Or was that a facade, and the faction we'd watched for about half the year served as a better gauge for their ceiling?
The latter posed some serious repercussions.
Lost on no one who follows the Knicks religiously is the importance of this season and what it means for the next few years. New York has spent itself well into the luxury tax over the next three seasons (this one included), and barring the unimaginable, this roster was it.
Jason Kidd and Kurt Thomas could retire. Rasheed Wallace's foot could force him into a second retirement. And J.R. Smith could leave in free agency.
Anthony, Chandler and Stoudemire, though? This was their team, for better or worse, or worse than worse. Together, they account for $53 million in payroll this season, $59 million and change next season and nearly $62 million leading into 2014-15 (assuming Melo remains in orange and blue).
How the Knicks fare this year and how far they go now would serve as a barometer for the next two years, because not much is going to change.
Is that good? Bad? Horrendous? Stupendous?
Admittedly, it's not that simple. With the Knicks, it never is.
The Honeymoon Phase
New York faced a slew of criticism as it prepared for this season.
That's a fact, not me spewing some unfounded opinion. I should know anyway. So much of that criticism came from my myself.
I cringed at the team's acquisition of Raymond Felton (I still do) for reasons other than Jeremy Lin's departure and even dedicated some time to explaining how Stoudemire stood to be a star-rific force on the offensive end (he was) and how his work ethic would help ensure he'd remain semi-healthy (oops).
And I wasn't alone. The Knicks were set to field the oldest roster in NBA history. With an average player age of 32, they're the most seasoned team in the league. Experience is good, great even. Over the course of an 82-game schedule, it can also be statistically debilitating.
By the time New York reached 18-5, the NBA sphere was stricken with surprise and enamored by these Knicks. These old but yet oh-so-voluptuous Knicks.
Through the first 23 games, they averaged 103.2 points per game (fifth) on 45 percent shooting overall (11th) and 41 percent shooting from deep. New York was also holding opponents to 96.1 points per night (10th), giving it the fourth-highest point differential (7.1) in the league.
Better than the Heat. Better than the Los Angeles Lakers. This was the dream.
But would it last?
Battered, Bruised and a Slave to Mediocrity
No, it wouldn't last.
Over the next 41 games, the Knicks' cakewalk turned into a gauntlet of injuries and losing.
Through this stretch of the season, New York floundered on offense, scoring just 96.4 points per game (17th) on 43.2 percent shooting (28th). The Knicks' barrage of three-pointers didn't stop, but the makes did. They shot just 34.4 percent from deep (24th).
Their defense held strong (for the most part). They were allowing just 96.2 points per game. That margin of victory we were so impressed with earlier, though?
Gone. Finished. Kaput.
New York was just a plus-six total through these 41 games, which averages out to be 0.15 points per game. Correct, the same team that was outscoring opponents by 10 points a night now couldn't even hit one.
It wasn't all bad, though.
Amar'e came back, and he looked good, becoming the only player in the NBA to average at least 14 points on fewer than 10 shots per game.
Hate on that.
Well, the injury powers at be did. Just 29 games into his comeback, Stoudemire's regular season was over. By the time the Knicks had hit Game 64, STAT had taken Chandler and Melo with him.
Suddenly, the Knicks found themselves on the brink of losing their division and falling out of the top four of the Eastern Conference. Able bodies were a foreign luxury and New York was turning to Smith to lead them.
It didn't look good.
The Knicks (and Stella) Get Their Groove Back
Somehow, after toeing the edges of oblivion and incompetency, New York turned it around.
Melo had his knee drained, rumors of Stoudemire returning in time for the postseason began to gain even more traction, Smith caught fire, Chris Copeland started doing things, Kenyon Martin emerged as a defensive superhero and the hair-pulling and eye-gouging began to cease. Chandler (eventually) returned as well.
New York won 10 in a row.
Since the Knicks have had most of the ground beneath them restored, they've bordered on perfection. Not the Heat-challenge-the-1971-72-Lakers-33-game-winning-streak perfect, but B-E-A-utiful all the same.
Over the last 10 games, the Knicks are dropping 102.9 points (fifth) and shooting 50 percent from the field (second) and 41.7 percent from beyond the arc (fourth). They're allowing just 90.4 points (third) and beating opponents by an average of 12.5 points a contest (first).
New York has also bore witness to a 50-point outing from Anthony and back-to-back-to-back 30-plus point outbursts from Smith. The team hasn't just found its groove—it's created a new one. A better one.
All along, the Knicks needed to rely on intelligible performances on both sides of the ball. They weren't going to win by just defending or scoring in bunches. They needed to do both.
They needed to be healthy.
At present, they're all those things and more. Even healthy. Stoudemire and Wallace have spent a majority of the season the bench, so as they are now, this is arguably the healthiest the Knicks have been all year.
And it shows.
Well, eight regular-season games, and then the playoffs.
How will these Knicks fare?
If the last 10 games are any indication, they're headed for the Eastern Conference finals.
Of course, we know it's more complicated than that. First, they must continue to win and maybe find a way to re-integrate Stoudemire.
Still, it's difficult not to feel it in the air: The Knicks are back. Completely (or close to it). Just like Amar'e declared nearly three years ago.
The way they're playing, in unison on both ends of the floor, it's implausible not to think big, to dream big.
It's officially impossible not to believe.
All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, 82games.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
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