Like someone who tries walking up the wrong escalator, the New York Knicks don’t seem very interested in making things easy on themselves.
Two weeks ago, New York was a dead team walking, its fate as a failure all but sealed.
Five wins and a fortnight later, the Knicks—who breezed past the Boston Celtics Wednesday night, 116-92, bringing their five-game average point differential to a whopping 17.2—have moved to within just three games of the Atlanta Hawks for the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot.
What's more, a once caustic chemistry is finally starting to thaw, as noted by the Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring immediately after New York's latest triumph:
Vibe around Knicks is completely different than it was two weeks ago. Far more laughter in locker room; Woodson signing autographs for kids.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) March 13, 2014
To be sure, making up one game for every five you play is a tough row to hoe, even in a notoriously shallow East. But with Atlanta reeling in mid-rebuild and the Knicks without a pick in this year’s draft—desperation personified—anything’s possible.
That kind of optimism would’ve seemed as foreign as a French chef back in February, when injuries, intrigue and bad basketball were conspiring to render this one of the most disastrous seasons in franchise history.
What’s worse, the statistics were just as sordid as the storylines.
Throughout, there were almost too many rock bottoms to count.
Dirk Nowitizki’s Garden-stunning buzzer-beater? Most certainly.
Since March 5, however, the Knicks have looked every bit the part of the 54-win team that took New York by storm just one year ago.
The most pleasant development of late has been the on-point passing of Carmelo Anthony, who is dishing an average of 5.5 assists over his last five games.
A simple question of causation? Maybe so, but there’s a motivational, somewhat psychological aspect to Melo’s gangbusters play that portends positive things for his future with the franchise.
If Anthony was really dead set on bolting this summer, scaling back his effort likely wouldn’t have much bearing on what level of tender he’d fetch. That’s part of the luxury of being a proven, perennial All-Star.
Of course, Melo putting his best foot forward night in and night out—as he undoubtedly has throughout this tumultuous season—doesn’t necessarily mean he’s decided to stay either.
However, it’s not crazy to think that, in order to establish the kind of culture that might attract a second or third superstar during next summer’s free-agency bonanza, Anthony would err on the side of unfettered ferocity.
Whatever Melo’s motivation, his teammates are clearly heeding their captain’s clarion call.
Perhaps Amar’e Stoudemire—amidst his best stretch of basketball in two years—said it best following Monday’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers. “We still have some ways to go, but we’re slowly chipping away,” he told reporters.
It could be too little, too late of course, as will happen when digging yourself the kind of hole the Knicks did in falling a full 19 games below .500 (21-40).
But with five of their next six opponents falling under that threshold, New York picked an ideal time to start playing to its potential.
Not even the imminent Phil Jackson hire and attendant media circus have thrown the Knicks off their scent, as Anthony told the press Saturday:
It seems like nobody is second-guessing themselves out there now, guys (are) just playing basketball. If guys have a shot they take it, if not, they swing it. Now we’re starting to trust each other a little more.
Speaking to Herring following Tuesday’s win in Boston, Mike Woodson had a different, significantly simpler take on his team’s recent surge:
Woodson: "These last five games, we've been shooting the hell out of the ball."— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) March 13, 2014
Even if the Knicks somehow secure a playoff bid, their ultimate fate is all but assured: a first-round exit courtesy of the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers.
Nevertheless, their feat would at least remind fans of the palpable potential lying just below New York’s confounding, often maddening surface.
All stats are courtesy of NBA.com and current as of March 12 unless otherwise notified.