Whatever bombs and barbs you can lob at the New York Knicks, you can’t say they don’t make things interesting.
After dispatching the Cleveland Cavaliers 107-97 Saturday night, the Knicks moved to within 3.5 games of the Atlanta Hawks for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot with 19 games still left to play.
We imagine the New York Post’s Tim Bontemps isn’t alone in his disbelief.
Knicks, at 16 games under .500, are four games out of a playoff spot. Amazing. More amazing? Might be favorites for the 8 seed in the East.— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) March 9, 2014
Once again, the Knicks rolled the dice on a starting lineup featuring the frontcourt troika of Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire. Once again, New York’s Big Three delivered, combining for 58 points and 30 rebounds en route to a third straight win for the suddenly surging Bockers.
But is it too little, too late?
Less than a week ago, New York had dropped seven in a row and appeared poised to flounder out of the playoff race altogether. Worse still, it seemed all but inevitable that Anthony—the team’s lone bright spot all season—would be forced to up and walk away.
Now, with the playoffs still within sight and the softest part of their schedule ahead of them, the Knicks have a real chance to once again flip the script on a three-year narrative that’s had more leaps of logic than a Kurt Vonnegut novel.
One of the more compelling about-faces has been the recent success of the Melo-Stoudemire-Chandler unit—this after seemingly endless handwringing from throughout the media (including by yours truly), imploring head coach Mike Woodson to trust in small-ball lineups featuring Anthony at power forward.
Small sample size aside, the numbers speak for themselves:
Winnow down the group’s pre-March play to include just February, the numbers are even more pronounced, per the Wall Street Journal’s Chris Herring:
Amare/Melo/Chandler lineups have outscored opponents by 17.7 pts per 100 plays in March. Same group got beaten by 10.1 per 100 plays in Feb.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) March 9, 2014
Not surprisingly, that unit’s gangbuster play has proven a potent impetus for the team as a whole.
While such statistics might not be sustainable over the long haul, if the Knicks can keep a pace to even a reasonable degree down the stretch—with eight of their next 11 opponents currently at or below .500—they could at least make things interesting for the Hawks and Charlotte Bobcats.
Atlanta in particular could prove ripe for the plucking: Having already dropped four in a row on their West-Coast swing—and six straight overall—the Hawks, who still have to face a home-tough Utah Jazz before getting a home-court break, are reeling and reeling hard.
What’s more, the Hawks still have a pair of tilts with the current No. 7 seed Charlotte Bobcats left on their docket. Depending on how those two games shake out, New York’s playoff prospects could become even stronger over the coming days and weeks.
Still, if the Knicks have any hope of completing their comeback, they can’t merely rely on their rivals’ ineptitude. To wit: After their aforementioned, bottom-feeder-laden 11-game stretch, New York will close the regular season with seven consecutive games against teams currently above .500—including two dates with the Atlantic Division-leading Brooklyn Nets.
So can the Knicks do it? Of course they can. There’s still plenty of time to salvage the season, and crazier things have happened besides. Plus, it's hard to discount a talent-laden team that suddenly rediscovers what made them love the game in the first place.
"When you're playing this way & everyone gets involved, everyone's confidence is high, & everyone is playing well, it's a lot of fun" STAT— NBA New York Knicks (@nyknicks) March 9, 2014
Will they? If you’re a Knicks fan, you know this story all too well: a sluggish start, a cratering deficit and an epic comeback that falls torturously short.
New York has made this its own unique trope over the last few seasons, infuriating fans with its languid effort, stoking their hopes by picking up the pace and passion, only to let them down in the end.
It’s one thing to have that be your calling card when the season’s young and the stakes are low, it's another thing entirely to do it with the hopes and fears of millions—and Melo’s own fate, perhaps—hanging on the line.
The Knicks are a mess, three-game respite notwithstanding. They’ve been clumsily constructed, terribly coached and—most crucial of all—magnificently mismanaged for years. They are, in so many ways, what you do not want your favorite NBA team to be.
But they’ve also been around long enough—since the league’s first tipoff, in fact—to build up the kind of cultural cache where hope in the impossible doesn’t feel so forced.
With the wrath of millions behind them and without a draft pick to their name, the Knicks simply have more to fight for than either the Hawks or the Bobcats. Which is the biggest reason why, even if what awaits them on the other side is a first-round thumping, you can expect the Knicks’ epic comeback to continue.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of March 9, unless otherwise noted.