One turn of the calendar is all it's taken for the New York Knicks to transform a snakebitten, star-crossed campaign into one with hope and purpose.
We wouldn't be talking about the Knicks like this if they played in the Western Conference. Not one bit. Not for a second.
Getting out to a 9-21 start would have killed them. Crippled them. Ended their season well before the halfway point.
Luckily for the Knicks, they play in the Eastern Conference, which is woeful and forgiving, and unattractive and friendly.
Slow starts aren't enough to derail entire crusades. Even New York's most vocal detractors knew this. The Knicks still had time to get it together. To get it right.
Time bought them hope, and they parlayed that hope into results, playing themselves within reach of a complete turnaround.
Those first 30 games were difficult to watch.
Every game was another adventure, unequal parts promise and peril. The Knicks would generally play well enough to make you believe before collapsing entirely, leaving a trail of blown victories in their wake.
Through those first 30 games, they lacked an identity. Carmelo Anthony remained productive, sure, but he was unable to define them. Losses defined them. Finding ways to lose, even when they were poised to win, defined them.
Inexplicable lethargy defined them.
But in came 2014, bringing with it a clean slate and fresh start, and not a moment too soon.
The Knicks closed out 2013 with a 9-21 record. Particularly disturbing was their 4-12 standing at Madison Square Garden, where they lost only 10 games all last season. If they couldn't win at home, what chance did they have of turning things around?
Something clicked on their Texas Triangle road trip, though. They returned home 2-1, knowing they were nearly a perfect 3-0.
|Knicks' Season by the Numbers|
|When||Off. Rtg.||Off. Rtg. Rank||Def. Rtg.||Def Rtg. Rank||Net Rtg.||Net Rtg. Rank|
|First 30 games||101.1||21||105.8||26||-4.7||26|
Morale was given a much-needed, long-awaited, seemingly impossible boon. Iman Shumpert was hitting shots. Amar'e Stoudemire was actually playing. The ball was moving on offense. Things were clicking.
With each passing victory, however pretty or convincing, hope has been restored.
Finding Solace in the Ugly
By no means have the Knicks been flawless in 2014. Far from it, in fact.
That's the point.
Their latest victory over the Phoenix Suns saw them squander a double-digit lead, falling behind by five late in the fourth quarter. But they rallied, inevitably winning in overtime.
Think back to their 89-85 win over the Detroit Pistons, when a 15-point fourth-quarter advantage was almost erased. It was an ugly game in every sense. Neither team shot over 41 percent from the field, and neither team played like it was going to win.
But the Knicks did.
These aren't games they win during the first part of the season. They would lose.
They did lose.
Shooting themselves in the foot became a habit. Whether it was allowing Washington Wizards sophomore Bradley Beal to waltz his way toward the rim for a game-winning layup—followed by a collective failure to call timeout—or Shumpert fouling Paul George on a game-tying three that permitted the Indiana Pacers to force overtime, the Knicks found a way to lose.
Recently, they've found a way win.
More importantly, they've found different ways to win all different kinds of games.
Becoming Whole Again
"Healthy" isn't an adequate word to describe these Knicks.
Sometime soon, it could be.
Raymond Felton is already back, defending poorly as ever. But he's still back. And Tyson Chandler is next.
Chandler's impact cannot be discounted. The Knicks are almost five points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor and will welcome his defensive leadership back into the lineup.
That they've managed to win these five games largely without him—he played four minutes in Dallas—further merits their recent improvement. As does the fact they've been without Pablo Prigioni, their biggest offensive catalyst at point guard.
Once Prig and Chandler return, assuming no other injuries take place, the Knicks will be close to whole—the closest they've been all season.
New York still has a lot to prove.
Games against the Eastern Conference-leading Pacers and Chris Paul-less Los Angeles Clippers—two opponents who have bested New York already this season—await. How the Knicks fare against these teams, against good teams, will say everything about how far they've actually come.
But no matter what, these aren't the same Knicks we saw weeks ago. Those Knicks were lost and, at times, listless, sulking their heads in defeat before the game was even over.
Those Knicks were a monumental failure.
"We are the laughingstock of the league," Anthony said in early December, per the New York Daily News' Peter Botte.
People aren't laughing so much now, because the Knicks aren't funny. They're playing like a cohesive basketball team, winning under problematic circumstances and lumbering through multiple injuries.
The offense can still be stagnant, and their help defense off dribble penetration is virtually nonexistent, but they're still managing to win at a high level, like they're an elite basketball team. Like they have hope.
Because they do have hope.
"I think, in close games, we are starting to learn how to figure things out at the end," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said following their win over Phoenix, via ESPN's Ohm Youngmisuk.
The Knicks are still the Knicks. Reassuring and infuriating, talented and uncertain, buoyant and discordant. Imperfect. But they're coming together, persevering their way to victories, both ugly and convincing.
And together they'll stay, climbing up the standings, figuring things out one win, one additional stitch of hope at a time.