Not long ago, it appeared the New York Knicks were dead in the water, without even the silver lining of a draft pick in this year's stacked draft to brighten the gloom that hovered over them. Then March came around, and with it a sudden plethora of wins. Unexpectedly, the Knicks, winners of nine of their last 14 games, found themselves right back in the thick of the hunt for the eighth seed.
At a surface glance, it may seem as if the Knicks hit a groove at just the right time by rediscovering their potent offense precisely when they needed it. Unfortunately, upon closer examination it appears outside influences were more important to the Knicks' streak than any real team improvement.
There's no cure for poor play quite like facing weaker opponents. During the Knicks' eight-game winning streak in March, only two of their opponents sported records above .500—the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Indiana Pacers. The other teams New York faced during their streak was a veritable smorgasbord of sorrow, including the likes of the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers (twice), Cleveland Cavaliers and Utah Jazz—some of the worst squads in the NBA.
While the Knicks themselves could hardly have been considered a top-tier team, they were certainly better, or at the very least more talented, than any of the aforementioned opponents. While it's true they did have some good wins—blasting Brooklyn to the tune of 110-81 in early April and narrowly beating Golden State 89-84 late in March—it's hardly cause for optimism that they've suddenly righted the ship.
The Atlanta Hawks
This seems counterintuitive at first. How, exactly, could another team be responsible for the Knicks' improvement? The answer lies in the Hawks' putrid performance in February, a month in which they lost 10 of 12 games. To their credit, it's tough for any team to compete when they're so injured that Elton Brand, a veteran that by this point in his career should be playing no more than 10 minutes a night, has to play 40 minutes in a game.
Despite their rash of injuries, the Hawks had a comfortable lead over the Knicks for the eight seed in the Eastern conference. As February progressed, however, that cushion dwindled. After a brief five-game winning streak in the middle of March, they reverted right back to their losing ways, rattling off six straight losses. The Hawks were losing at precisely the wrong time, and the Knicks took terrific advantage.
Of course, let's give credit where credit is due. The Knicks, with a future that ranged from uncertain to gloomy and a present that was downright depressing, could have easily folded. But they didn't. Desperate to salvage a disappointing season, they fought harder than they had all year, winning at just the right time to give themselves a puncher's chance at the playoffs.
They're not title contenders, and had the Hawks not suffered their string of injuries, it's unlikely the Knicks would even be battling for the eight seed, but at least a playoff appearance could somewhat silence (not wholly, because there's no such thing as silence when it comes to the Knicks) the overwhelming criticism.
Unfortunately, given yesterday, which saw the Knicks lose to the Heat while the Hawks beat the Pacers, New York now finds itself two games back of Atlanta with four games—two against the Toronto Raptors, one against the Chicago Bulls and the Brooklyn Nets—remaining in the regular season. That faint flicker of hope reignited by luck has been all but snuffed out by reality.