Are the New York Knicks an Elite NBA Playoff Team?

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Are the New York Knicks an Elite NBA Playoff Team?
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Are Raymond Felton and the Knicks ready to spread their wings and fly into the NBA's playoff stratosphere?

In case you needed another sign of the apocalypse: The New York Knicks are a lock to vanquish the mighty Boston Celtics and move on to the second round.

In other news, pigs flew, the moon actually is made of green cheese and it's parka weather in hell.

Residents of the five boroughs will confirm—with no small amount of surliness—that the Knicks haven't advanced past the first round since Bill Clinton was president. These fans can finally ditch the Sominex and rest easy: An NBA team has never lost a playoff series when leading three games to none.

That's not going to change with this series.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Smith will be back for Game 5.

Heck, this thing was almost over in four. Despite Carmelo Anthony missing 25 of his 35 shots, J.R. Smith's suspension and being down by 20 points in the third quarter, the Knicks forced overtime in Game 4 against a proud Celtics team desperate to avoid a sweep.

The Knicks lead all playoff teams in defensive efficiency and opponent points allowed. The way they've been playing defensively, and how Anthony, Smith and Raymond Felton have been playing offensively, it seems all Boston did was stay the executioner.

So, is it time to anoint the New York Knicks an elite playoff team?

First, we have to consider their foe. The Celtics were a No. 7 seed, and it took a nice run in late February to get themselves in that position. They're missing arguably their best player, Rajon Rondo, as well as rookie standout Jared Sullinger.

Kevin Garnett hurt himself in Game 2 of this series, but even in the first game, he was not playing like a superstar, netting just eight points on 4-of-12 shooting to go with nine rebounds in his 37 minutes. His jumper to send Game 4 into overtime was undeniably clutch, but in no way does he look capable of carrying his team to victory.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
This is looking more and more like KG and Pierce's last stand.

Yes, the Celtics are only a few years removed from an NBA Finals loss and made it to the Conference Finals last year. But without Rondo and Sullinger, and with Garnett and Paul Pierce (to a lesser extent) showing their age, the Knicks are feasting on the carcass of this former powerhouse.

It's difficult to declare a team elite just because it's whipping another team that's anything but.

What about Anthony, who's tied for the league lead in playoff scoring? Is he unstoppable, or are the Celtics playing slipshod defense?

It's a little of both, but to me, it's more of the latter.

Take a look at this Game 4 sequence. Anthony, who ran an inordinate number of isolation plays in Smith's absence, is being guarded by Garnett at the top of the key. KG is still a great post defender, but he's clearly out of his comfort zone. 

After Anthony blows by him, look at the Celtics. They are very cautious about keeping an eye on their men on the wings despite the fact that Anthony is averaging exactly one assist per playoff game.

Anthony's show-and-go is dazzlingly quick—in real time, it's barely perceptible. But it fools no one_and yet no one collapses on him. There's gesturing and pointing between Pierce and Garnett, but that's about it.

Anthony lopes right down the middle with every single Celtic within reach of the play, and somehow, he makes it to the rim like a hot knife through butter. No one contests this shot or even hampers it in any way. 

The bottom line is, with the exception of Garnett down low, the guys in green are a hot mess defensively.

On NBA.com, you'll hear commentator Isiah Thomas saying exactly the opposite: According to Zeke, the Celtics "made [Anthony] work for every single shot he took" in Game 4.

Isiah, forgive me when I say I am much less afraid of disagreeing with you than I would have been before you singlehandedly destroyed the Knicks franchise. Despite Thomas' considered opinion that the Celtics made life difficult for Anthony, I say Anthony made life more difficult for the opposition.

But even with the Celtics' less-than-intimidating defense and Anthony's prodigious scoring, the Knicks offense is troubling statistically. They are 13th in both points per game and offensive efficiency, and they rank second-to-last in points per shot.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
If the Knicks want to be elite, they must beat the Heat.

That kind of performance won't get it done against the Miami Heat, the unquestioned cream of the crop in this NBA this season.

Round 2 is a certainty, and the way the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks are dueling, it's likely the Knicks will ride their superior talent into the Eastern Conference finals. That will certainly add confidence to the their squad and likely add fuel to the braggadocio of its fans. 

Only then will the Knicks be facing a truly worthy opponent. So only then can the "e" word even be considered.

Don't get me wrong—just as Rocky didn't have to defeat Apollo to earn respect, the Knicks similarly don't have to score an upset in the conference finals. But Rocky got his props by going the distance. If the Knicks get swept, if the games aren't competitive come crunch time, that won't be enough to impress.

The Knicks have returned to relevance, and to quote New York's finest sitcom, Seinfeld, the return has been both real and often spectacular. But to quote one of New York's finest actors, Harvey Keitel, as The Cleaner in Pulp Fiction: Let's not start ••••ing each other's ••••s quite yet.

Five more victories and then we'll see what this team is really made of. 

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