The New York Knicks are fun again.
Sure, Thursday's 117-86 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers came against a struggling team, as did Tuesday's big win over the Boston Celtics. In fact, none of the teams the Knicks have beaten during their four-game winning streak have a record over .500.
So what? The Knicks have been losing to teams like Cleveland and Boston all season, tripping all over themselves while watching a conga line of opposing ball-handlers stroll to the basket time and again.
But the Knicks have looked like a different team during this streak, which just happens to coincide perfectly with power forward Andrea Bargnani's absence from the lineup. The Knicks are missing three of their bigs in Bargnani, Amar'e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin, yet they are crushing teams that were beating them earlier in the season.
Carmelo Anthony started Thursday's game with 18 points in the first quarter. He brushed aside Cleveland's defense for several drives to the rim, including perhaps the most demonstrative dunk of his Knicks career.
By the end of the first quarter, New York had a 17-point lead, and Melo wasn't really needed again. He finished with 29 points in limited minutes, dropping his four-game scoring average down to 37.5 points per game.
While Melo took most of the rest of the night off, his teammates finished off the Cavaliers in what was perhaps the best team effort of the Knicks' season.
At first blush, it seems strange that a team would start to play better after losing key contributors to injury. But this has become the norm for New York, according to The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring:
Since the beginning of last season, the Knicks have gone 50-28 (64.1%) when three or more players miss a game due to injury—far better than their 22-27 (44.9%) record when two or fewer players are out. That 19.2% disparity in winning percentage is easily the largest in the NBA over that span, according to Stats LLC.
Of course, it's not as simple as "the Knicks win when they lose a bunch of players." They were a bad team earlier in the season when Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni were in and out of the lineup with injuries.
As terrible as it sounds, New York needs the right players to be injured.
When Woodson has had his full complement of bigs this season, he has played big lineups featuring one or both of the Bargnani/Stoudemire combo. And the Knicks lost. A lot.
But now that those players are out, Woodson has been forced to play Carmelo Anthony at power forward. He responded to his assignment with a tidy 62 points in his first game starting at the 4.
Melo expressed his approval of New York's small lineups following the win over Cleveland, per Herring:
Melo: "The small lineup, I really like [it]. I don't have any problem w/ it."— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) January 31, 2014
Even Woodson himself has suddenly become a fan of small ball, telling the media before Thursday's game:
Woodson on the small lineup: "It works. I don't even know that I'll go away from it this time."— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) January 30, 2014
Though the Knicks are playing better, it is a stinging indictment of the coach that he is only now, after three seasons and a slew of injuries, finally discovering what works best for the Knicks. The coach has cost New York numerous wins this season by playing the wrong people in the wrong situations.
Despite Woodson's noted preferences, the Knicks' players themselves are showing the world who deserves to play and who doesn't. And one youngster in particular has been leading the way over the past few games.
Carmelo Anthony's 29 points were matched by rookie Tim Hardaway Jr., who buried the Cavaliers under an avalanche of threes when they threatened to pull back into the game late in the third quarter.
Hardaway, the No. 24 pick in last year's draft, has recovered from a brief shooting drought in early January and has been shooting the lights out during the winning streak. He combined with a suddenly resurgent J.R. Smith to dominate Cleveland from the wing, outscoring the heralded duo of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, 48-45.
When a team's two best scorers are losing the points battle to Smith and Hardaway, before Melo even chips in a point, that team is going to lose the game.
Hardaway even added to Smith's highlight reel with a sweet outlet pass that J.R. turned into a massive two-handed reverse dunk.
After the game, Hardaway added this money quote when asked about the pass, per SB Nation's Seth Rosenthal:
Hardaway on his long outlet pass to JR: "I got my Kevin Love on and threw it full-court so we could party time"— Seth Rosenthal (@seth_rosenthal) January 31, 2014
The kid is having fun, and who can blame him? He's playing well, and he's earning the praise of basketball pundits like Sports Illustrated's Brain Mahoney, who compared him favorably to Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 overall pick:
As Mike Brown said, Bennett was hurt this summer. But on 1st impression, looked to me like Knicks got a player in the draft and Cavs didn't.— Brian Mahoney (@briancmahoney) January 31, 2014
At the rookie photo shoot in Aug., Bennett was clowning around, as many guys do in a relaxed atmosphere. Hardaway was working on his jumper.— Brian Mahoney (@briancmahoney) January 31, 2014
The Knicks have finally shown some of their purported depth in the past two games. With Smith and Hardaway shooting the lights out, they no longer need Melo to score 62 points in order to win games. They can go small, spread the floor with shooters and play the kind of basketball that lead them to a division title last season.
Sure, they probably should have been playing this way since October, but better late than never.