Better late than never for the 'bockers, whose 110-81 thrashing of the Brooklyn Nets Wednesday night propelled them to a tentative hold on the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot, one game ahead of the cratering Atlanta Hawks.
Given where the Knicks have been in the standings—below the fold in one of the worst conference’s in recent memory—that feat alone would warrant some welcome relief.
Now comes the hard part: Holding on—something the Knicks more desperately need than either the Hawks or Cleveland Cavaliers.
The reasons are manifold, but we might as well start with the obvious: Unlike Atlanta and Cleveland, the Knicks do not own a 2014 first-round draft pick—a seeming throwaway in the 2011 Carmelo Anthony trade now rearing its ugly head.
What for so many teams served as the psychic safety net in the event of a free-fall simply wasn’t there for New York, which has operated all season long on a tightrope suspended between two Manhattan skyscrapers, bare cement below.
Then there’s Anthony himself, whose uncertain future—colored by comments early in the season indicating he would forgo the final year of his contract in lieu of unrestricted free agency—has loomed large the season through.
Just prior to the hiring of Phil Jackson to run New York’s front office, back when the Knicks looked dead to rites, it seemed impossible that Anthony—pushing 30 and desperate for a ring—would return to roll his legacy’s dice on another calendar in the cauldron.
Now, with his team charging hard into spring, the idea Melo might make Manhattan his permanent home is, like the season itself, enjoying new life. From Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale:
Landing in the playoffs leaves Anthony more inclined to see the Knicks as the 11-3 team they've been since March 5 and not the 21-40 nightmare he called his own before then. Dancing well into April can have that effect. It brings hope and optimism and a renewed belief in what the Knicks are doing and whom they are.
Speaking of Jackson, don’t think for a second he isn’t taking mental notes on who poses the best fit for the franchise’s future plans. By pulling off the improbable, the Knicks—more accurately, its constitutive players—would invariably ingratiate themselves to their new overseer.
To what degree, it’s impossible to say. But if Jackson can somehow turn this Knicks core, with a few savvy tweaks, into something resembling a contender, he’ll have orchestrated one of the greatest franchise about-faces in the history of the NBA.
That the Knicks need to make the playoffs more than the Hawks or Cavs is a matter of financial, cultural, even political fact for the franchise itself. But if recent remarks given by Atlanta general manager Danny Ferry are to be believed, New York might be the only team that actually wants it. From USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt:
We're not focused on trying to be the eighth seed in the playoffs because that's not our goal. We're trying to build something that's good, sustainable and the components are in place for us to do so.
Even granting the obvious context—that Ferry meant his team’s ultimate endgame was not merely to secure the eighth seed—the second sentence has all the hallmarks of an executive fully aware of the league landscape, where a historic draft class offers the possibility of franchise-altering fortune.
The Cavs, on the other hand, are a little bit tougher to figure. While Cleveland indeed owns its 2014 pick, Kyrie Irving’s uncertain future behooves them—in theory—to prove they can be a playoff team sooner rather than later.
Like the Knicks, the Cavs had been given up for dead before a recent late-season surge. Like New York, Cleveland is desperate to appease a fanbase fed up with years of disappointment and mismanagement.
Unlike the Knicks, however, the Cavs have enough in the way of young assets to at least have a chance of selling their fans on just one more year—something that might incite outright revolt among New York loyalists.
And yet, there’s a more practical, even potent element to the Knicks’ midnight run: The way they’re playing now, they might actually stand a chance to upset the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers—two teams who’ve experienced their own spring swoons, albeit to slightly different degrees.
Believing the Knicks have the talent and depth to do what Patrick Ewing, Jeff Van Gundy and company did in 1999—make the NBA Finals as a No. 8 seed—might amount to wishful thinking. There’s a reason, after all, that the napping hare never caught the tortoise.
But if sports history has taught us anything about momentum, it’s that, after fending off enough foes, even a wounded beast can start to look like a playoff predator.