The New York Knicks have a thing for streaking.
They have now followed their seemingly season-ending seven-game slide with a six-game surge that keeps them just inside the NBA playoff periphery.
"It's unfortunate that we had to wait until we got our backs up against the wall and we dug ourselves a big hole," Carmelo Anthony said after New York's 115-94 win over the Milwaukee Bucks Saturday afternoon, via NBA.com's Adam Zagoria. "But we'll take it right now. We're playing some of our best basketball of the season and we're just trying to take it one game at a time."
They're hobbling around on two legs that could give at any time, but for now they still have a puncher's chance. In the featherweight Eastern Conference, they shouldn't need a knockout uppercut—a few solid jabs might do the trick.
As it stands, there's only a 3.5-game gap between them and the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks. It's still a cavernous divide with only 15 games left on the slate, but the Al Horford-less Hawks haven't finalized any postseason plans yet.
It wasn't long ago that the Knicks clawing back into contention seemed about as likely as Phil Jackson returning to the franchise where he started his playing career.
Then, chaos ensued.
Kevin Garnett's infamous "Anything is possible!" cry shifted from inspirational to prophetic: The Zen Master agreed to become the team's next president, and the league's laughingstock started laughing at everyone else.
The numbers that hadn't fallen in New York's favor all season suddenly shined with a blue-and-orange brilliance. The offense went from the back of the milk carton to the top of the charts. Defensive leaks started plugging themselves.
|Period||TS%||Off Rtg||Def Rtg||Net Rtg|
|Last six games||60.9||122.6||104.5||Plus-18.2|
|Previous seven games||52.2||100.1||114.7||Minus-14.6|
The Knicks haven't defeated teams—they've dismantled them. All six wins have been decided by double digits, with an average margin of victory of 17.8.
They've also come against teams with a combined record of 130-263. If you're looking for a reason to discredit the turnaround, you wont find a more glaring figure than that:
Phil Jackson making an immediate impact with the Knicks. And the Bucks also stink.— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) March 15, 2014
Still, there's a lot to be said for beating the opponents you're supposed to handle. Besides, optimism is burgeoning not because of whom the Knicks are beating but how they're doing it.
New York has unearthed a perimeter proficiency reminiscent of last season's 54-win outfit. The Knicks are shooting 43.1 percent from distance over this win steak, with five different players clearing the 40 percent mark: Pablo Prigioni (69.2), J.R. Smith (46.2), Tim Hardaway Jr. (42.9), Raymond Felton (42.9) and Iman Shumpert (41.7).
The ball has danced where it used to stick. Anthony (4.2 assists; 3.1 on the season), Smith (3.7; 3.1) and Shumpert (3.0; 1.8) have all upped their distribution levels during the streak, and the offense has soared.
"Guys’ mind-set individually, it’s all coming together, as a collective," Anthony said after New York's 107-97 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 8, via Peter Botte of New York Daily News. "It seems like everybody, you see everybody has a sense of urgency right now and they’re playing very desperate at this point. … And we’re starting to trust each other a little more.”
Coach Mike Woodson has widened his circle of trust as well, slotting both Smith and Amar'e Stoudemire inside his starting five. That unit (Felton, Smith, Anthony, Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler) has been cheat-code good: plus-19.3 points per 100 possessions during the winning streak.
Stoudemire has been particularly potent. The 31-year-old has tallied 17.5 points in his last six starts, nearly seven points better than his season average (10.9).
"Amar'e is playing some of his [best] basketball that I've seen in a while," Felton said after Stoudemire's 23-point gem against Philadelphia 76ers Monday night, via Marc Raimondi of Newsday.
There's a reason for this team to put its best foot forward.
Jackson has no loyalty to this roster. While cap-killing contracts will hinder how much the president can do, there's still a new boss to impress.
This might be a new role for the legendary coach, but his rings still speak for themselves.
Jackson's job is to build a winner. This is these players' chance to prove they can play on such a team.
This could still be all for naught. The Knicks don't even control their own destiny.
The potential prize for this recovery would hardly be considered rewarding.
With no first-round draft pick to show for a wasted season, though, the Knicks have nothing to aim for other than that daunting date with destiny, and the tools needed to get that chance.
With so many wrongs yet to right, maybe the Knicks could send a playoff shock wave through the basketball world. After months of floundering in frigid water, this team is showing it still knows how to play with fire.