Don't look now, but the New York Knicks are in playoff position in the Eastern Conference.
Following a 98-96 overtime victory against the visiting Phoenix Suns, the Knicks are—improbably, incredibly, unfathomably—the No. 8 seed. At 15-22, they hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Brooklyn Nets for that coveted final spot in the East.
Practically speaking, the Knicks have arrived at this modest success by winning six of their past seven games. It's funny how notching victories has a way of vaulting a team up the standings, isn't it?
But anybody could look at New York's recent game log and tell you that. What's more interesting is probing a little deeper for the root causes behind the Knicks' recent surge.
After falling to the Toronto Raptors by a final score of 115-100 on Dec. 28, the Knicks were just 9-21 on the season. Their defense was abysmal, allowing 105.8 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
And on the other end, New York was struggling to score. With an offensive rating of 101.1, buckets were awfully hard to come by. As a matter of fact, running down virtually all of the Knicks' metrics from the beginning of the season to that fateful late-December day reveals a team inept in almost every facet of the game.
The Knicks hauled in just 47.5 percent of available rebounds, a figure that would currently rank just a fraction above the NBA's worst rebounding team.
Iman Shumpert had been a basket case, averaging just 6.2 points per game on 36 percent shooting. J.R. Smith was right there with him in the inaccuracy department, logging 32.7 minutes per contest despite a disgusting 35.1 percent field-goal percentage on the season.
Running down the rest of the list just feels mean. Suffice it to say, the Knicks were an utter statistical embarrassment from top to bottom.
But in their next game on Jan. 2, something changed.
The Knicks beat the San Antonio Spurs in San Antonio! Carmelo Anthony went off for 27 points and 12 rebounds on 10-of-20 shooting, and Shumpert matched his point total on just 13 shots (including six made three-pointers).
New York slipped up against the Houston Rockets in its next game, but it then reeled off five straight wins that culminated in the Jan. 13 defeat of the Suns.
During that seven-game span, the Knicks went 6-1, thanks largely to improved contributions from role players and a team-wide commitment to more consistent defensive effort.
Shumpert has averaged 13.1 points per game during that span, while hitting 51.6 percent of his shots from the field and 52.6 percent from long range, per NBA.com. Anthony has continued to provide his signature volume scoring, while even Kenyon Martin has chipped in.
In his first 22 games, Martin averaged 3.4 points per game on 45.8 percent shooting. During New York's past seven contests, he's hitting nearly 58 percent of his shots while averaging 7.8 points per game.
The Knicks have simply played better in every way. Defensively, they've held opponents to 99.9 points per 100 possessions during their 6-1 run, all the while posting an offensive rating of 106.2, per NBA.com. That's a massive swing in net rating, going from minus-4.7 points per 100 possessions in the season's first 30 games to plus-6.3 over the most recent seven.
Against the Suns, the Knicks showcased some of their newfound defensive chops—in spurts, at least.
Per the team's official Twitter feed, head coach Mike Woodson was pleased with the way they handled Phoenix when it counted.
"Our defense was right where it needed to be" -- #Knicks head coach Mike Woodson on win over the Suns.— NBA New York Knicks (@nyknicks) January 14, 2014
There was plenty to build on, though, as Woodson also pointed out:
"I got to get our point guards playing better defense out front" #Knicks head coach Mike Woodson— NBA New York Knicks (@nyknicks) January 14, 2014
This team is far from perfect, but the clear commitment to getting stops—along with the undeniable statistical improvement in key areas—indicates that this recent run might be sustainable.
The Schedule and the Little Things
It's always tempting to immediately discount a streak by pointing out the weak competition that allowed it to happen. But you really can't make that argument with the Knicks.
Sure, the Suns are struggling since losing Eric Bledsoe. And yes, the lowly Philadelphia 76ers were one of New York's other early-January conquests.
But the Knicks have also toppled the Miami Heat at home, along with the Dallas Mavericks and aforementioned Spurs on the road. Toss in a four-point win over the occasionally dangerous Detroit Pistons, and you've got yourself a legitimate streak with real competition.
And in order to beat good competition, the Knicks have finally started doing the always critical "little things" much more effectively than they did in their first 30 games.
The win over the Suns provides a couple of good examples. First, the Knicks managed to execute well enough on both ends to win a close contest—something they hadn't done all year:
Knicks: 1st win this season in a game decided by 3 Pts or fewer (previously 0-5)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 14, 2014
Second, they actually avoided the kind of mental blunders that have doomed them in the past. Instead of Andrea Bargnani or Smith firing off ill-advised late-game bombs, the Knicks actually managed a late situation perfectly:
Knicks, by the way, intentionally fouled while up 3 for the first time all season. Looks like itll help them secure a win here.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) January 14, 2014
Considering the amount of coverage he gets, calling Smith a "little thing" might sound strange. But by minimizing his role, the Knicks have actually improved. Amid "Shoelacegate," Smith has seen his minutes and shots decline.
Anyone who has watched him play this year won't be surprised to learn that a reduction in Smith's role has coincided with his team's marked improvement. It makes you wonder how much better New York would be if it cut Smith out of the rotation altogether.
Room to Grow, Signs of Hope
New York still has its share of problems.
Goran Dragic absolutely torched Raymond Felton on Monday, blowing by him repeatedly on the way to 28 points. And despite his remarkable line of 29 points, 16 rebounds and four assists, 'Melo is still passing almost exclusively as a last resort.
He found Felton for a critical corner three in crunch time, but 'Melo only flipped him the ball because the Suns stymied his isolation attempt. For what it's worth, Anthony waited so long before desperately tossing Felton the rock that he almost certainly came back down to the floor in what should have been a traveling violation.
Smith, of course, is a walking distraction, practically poison to any sustained winning effort.
Issues aside, the Knicks are playing their best ball of the season. And here they are, sitting in the No. 8 spot, looking at an eight-game home stand that starts Jan. 17 and likely to get Tyson Chandler back from a respiratory infection very soon.
Winning six out of seven games before the halfway point of a season is an admittedly modest achievement. But by going from dreadful to decent, the Knicks are suddenly relevant again. Where they go from here is anybody's guess.
It's just nice to see some glimpses of hope for the first time this year.