The New York Knicks are about to finish their best regular season in over a decade, and that came and went in typical Knicks rollercoaster fashion.
Highlighted by a scorching 18-5 start and just as sizzling a 15-2 finish, New York's 2012-13 campaign was weighed down a bit by an incredibly mediocre 20-21 mid-section. The team was exposed over that period thanks primarily to injury troubles, but we learned a lot about what makes this unit work when they were at their worst.
Here are the keys to New York enjoying an extended stay in this year's postseason.
Raymond Felton Playing Adequately
Raymond Felton being serviceable at the point guard position is the most essential cog in the Knicks' plans.
Felton's overall numbers on the season won't blow anyone away—14 points and 5.5 assists on 43-percent shooting—but what's extremely telling is the disparity of those numbers in wins and losses.
In Knicks' victories, Felton shoots a better-than-average 45 percent from the field, and 39 percent from beyond the arc. When New York comes out on the losing end, Felton's shooting line drops to 39 percent from the field and a miserable 28 percent three-point clip.
Turning to efficiency numbers, Felton sports an impressive plus-16.1 net rating in victories and a troublesome minus-15 in losses. His assist-to-turnover ratio is nearly cut in half from wins to losses.
Felton possesses a great ability to penetrate the lane for attempts at the basket, but tends to blow layups at a frustratingly high rate. This issue only exacerbates into New York defeats.
The numbers tell the tale here. When Raymond Felton plays adequately, the Knicks will usually win. The team can't afford any poor play from their starting point guard this postseason.
Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls perhaps phrased it the best when he said (via the Chicago Tribune) that although Carmelo Anthony is a "great" player, it's possible to "get in his head a little bit."
The same can be said for the Knicks as a whole: If you put them in a position where they're down, there's a decent chance they won't get up.
Even with the veteran leadership on the Knicks in Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace and others, the team has still managed to suffer through mental lapses in times of adversity.
Carmelo has racked up 14 technical fouls this season—two shy of a one-game suspension.
Here's a clip from a November matchup against the Houston Rockets of Anthony at his worst. When 'Melo is struggling to draw whistles, he won't shy away from letting officials hear it. And as great as Carmelo is, he tends to let his frustrations hamper his play.
Anthony didn't get the foul, decided to contest the call instead of the breakaway layup and was whistled for a technical foul.
This same sort of mental weakness was seen against New York's first-round playoff opponent Boston Celtics back in January.
Although the two have apparently put their differences aside, odds are tempers will flare eventually when the stakes are at their highest. It'll be important for every Knick—especially 'Melo—to refrain from confrontation, as it usually spells poor execution. That Boston game was likely Anthony's worst of the season—he shot 6-of-26 with just three rebounds that night.
J.R. Smith Getting to the Basket
Over the years we've grown familiar with Good J.R. Smith and Bad J.R. Smith. But in the last month, we've seen a player we've never seen before—Smart J.R. Smith.
Smith has ceased settling for excessive jump shots and has been using his incredible athletic ability to get to the rim and finish strong. Below is a chart of Smith's shot distributions through the first 65 games, as opposed to the last 15.
Smith's attempts at the rim have increased from a mere 16 percent through 65 games to 35 percent in his recent hot streak.
His field-goal percentage was a sub-par 40 percent before his offensive renaissance took place. Over his last 15 contests, however, he's a remarkable 51 percent from the field, including 39 percent from three-point range.
If it wasn't certain before, it is now: Smith will win the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award, and deservingly so after he's changed his unreliable ways for the sake of the team.
New York needs to bank on J.R. holding true to his new mindset. The team is 14-1 in those 15 games, which is due in large part to Smith's revitalization.
As long as Bad J.R. stays far away from the Garden floor, the Knicks have a shot at making a run against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.
Stats and shot charts obtained from Basketball-Reference and NBA.com/Stats.
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