When LeBron James struts into Madison Square Garden this evening with the rest of his Miami Heat teammates, the fervor and electricity will be palpable.
Unlike Cleveland a few weeks ago, most of the peanut gallery clamor won’t be spiteful towards James.
Oh sure, there will be taunts and tawdry remarks from liquored-up New Yorkers who possess as much disdain for James and the Heat as anybody else.
This, after all, is a city and a team that clipped its hopes and desires onto James’ coattails only to watch him opt for the warm water of South Beach instead of the icy winters of New York.
But this isn’t LeBron and The Lions Den, or whatever he walked into when he returned to Ohio for the first time as something other than a Cleveland Cavalier.
No, this is different.
This is about the excitement surrounding the Knicks, a sentence generally so implausible that even the keys ask, “Are you sure you want to write that?” when you begin to peck away at them.
Yes, for the first time in a long time, we can write that sentence and believe it.
Behind Amar’e Stoudemire, the New York Knicks have won 13 of their last 15 games and are 16-10 on the year.
That’s good for second in the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division, trailing only the 21-4 Boston Celtics.
What’s good for the Knicks remains undeniably good for the NBA.
The NBA is a much more fascinating league when the Knicks are relevant, and when they bring out everything a championship-caliber Celtics team has, as was the case in a two-point loss on Wednesday.
When the Knicks are good, the Garden rocks with an array of emotions—equal parts joy for the Knicks and animosity for the opponent—that’s unparalleled in the NBA.
The Garden at its best is 20,000 rejoicing roses, not a thorn in the bunch.
It’s high-class basketball and world-class entertainment all in the same two-and-a-half hours.
Basketball means something at the Garden.
So when the Knicks won 13-of-15, including eight in a row before losing to Boston, it was more than enough to forget the 3-8 start to the season.
People began tossing around seemingly ancient memories of Knicks-Celtics games, a rivalry-that-isn’t-really-a-rivalry-but-is-so-tasty-on-the-surface-that-the-nation-is-calling-it-a-rivalry.
With the Heat in town, the inevitable whispers begin to scurry around the depths of the Garden.
“Are the Knicks back?”
“Is this team for real?”
“Can they, um, actually contend for a title?”
As much fun as these last couple weeks have been, I’m not sure we are ready to go there yet, however.
The Knicks are currently built for the playoffs.
With Mike D’Antoni’s "run first, think later" system, the Knicks—assuming Stoudemire stays healthy—can score their way to a top-8 seed in the East.
Perhaps they can even be a 5-seed.
But the Knicks aren’t currently a championship team. They have great athleticism and great chemistry, but there’s no hiding the missing pieces.
This isn’t to say they aren’t dangerous or can’t take down a Boston or a Miami in a seven-game series. They may have that in them if their bench gets hot and Stoudemire continues his current streak of nine consecutive games of 30 or more points.
I get it. New York has been starving for a good Knicks team, so any signs of life create a buzz that will fend off any notions of reality.
So I know that nobody in New York has stopped to think about how the Knicks are currently constituted or how they’ve churned out win after win in their last 15 games.
But has anybody else wondered what’s behind the glittery streak?
Has anybody questioned whether there’s any substance to complement the style?
Facts of the Streak
Here are a few realities dating back to Nov. 17 against Sacramento, the first game of the incredible 15-game stretch:
The Knicks have beaten the Kings, Warriors, Clippers, Bobcats (twice), Pistons, Nets, Hornets, Raptors (twice), Wizards and Nuggets.
Those teams are a combined 103 games under .500.
In those 13 wins, the Knicks had an average margin of victory of 7.2 points.
In New York’s recent eight-game win streak, its opponents are 54 games under .500.
In those eight wins, the Knicks’ average margin of victory was 8.1 points.
Stoudemire has been the physical and emotional motor behind this streak, even creating some “MVP!” chants from the Garden while his 30-plus points streak remains intact.
What’s interesting, though, is that Stoudemire averages approximately 22 points per game in his career. In the last 15 games, he’s scored less than his career average only twice.
So you could make the argument that it’s taken much superior play from Stoudemire for the Knicks to run off a string of wins against woeful opponents.
Behind Stoudemire is point guard Raymond Felton.
Felton spent five seasons in Charlotte before being rescued by D’Antoni and the Knicks this year.
It’s reasonable to think Felton would progress as he got older, but he has undoubtedly benefited greatly from D’Antoni’s system.
With the Knicks, Felton is posting approximately five points and two assists more per game than his career averages.
In the last 15 games, Felton has had only four where he scored fewer than his season average (about 18 per game).
Nine of the 15 games Felton has had double-digit assists.
So we could also make the argument that it has taken Felton’s best stretch of games to orchestrate this winning streak as well.
And this is where the line is drawn for the Knicks.
Felton has the ability to be an upper-echelon point guard.
Stoudemire has the ability to be a franchise player.
But if Stoudemire has to be the go-to scorer, then it takes away from his ability to rebound, an area where the Knicks don’t exactly have depth.
And if we have learned anything from previous postseasons, it’s that championship teams get good guard play and they rebound.
Danilo Gallinari gets a lot of hype because of his sweet spot-up stroke, but the Knicks could afford to trade him.
He doesn’t rebound, and New York wouldn’t lose much with Wilson Chandler filling Gallinari’s role.
Chandler is averaging 17.3 points per game, 36.6 percent 3-point shooting and is solid from the free-throw line.
If the Knicks are going to be a legitimate title contender, they need to add one big man that plays defense and crashes the boards, and then they have to do whatever it takes to bring Carmelo Anthony to New York.
The Knicks don’t have much to trade, so they may have to wait to sign Anthony as a free agent next summer unless Denver gets so fed up and ships him out for 30 cents on the dollar.
Would a packagae of Gallinari, Anthony Randolph, Eddy Curry’s expiring contract and a draft pick work for Denver?
If I’m a Nuggets fan, that offer makes me cringe, but Denver may not have any other choice. Take something back or watch Anthony walk away at the end of the year.
New York’s run has been intoxicating, it’s been exhilarating, it’s been everything the city hasn’t had and wants back.
But if the Knicks are banking on Stoudemire continuously playing at an otherworldly level he’s never consistently played at before, and Felton being a legitimate second scoring option while trying to run the offense, and Gallinari and Chandler averaging in the upper-teens in points per game, well I just don’t see that level of play being sustained.
It’s not the effort or ability that is frightening.
The Knicks are a hell of an exciting team to watch.
What’s concerning is that it took that level of play to beat terrible teams by consistently less than nine points. It’s not like the Knicks dismantled those teams.
Felton and Stoudemire are both in the top-8 in the league in minutes. There’s been no resting the starters in the fourth quarter of a 25-point blowout.
New York’s next 13 games—beginning with the loss to Boston—will tell us a lot about what kind of team they really are.
In that stretch the Knicks play Boston (loss), the Heat, at Cavs, Thunder, Bulls, at Heat, at Magic, Pacers, Spurs, at Suns, at Lakers, at Blazers, at Jazz.
Those are the games I want to see.
I expect the Knicks to beat the Cavs, Pacers and Suns. The rest of them will be great tests.
Here’s to hoping the Knicks pass them. There’s nothing in the NBA quite like playoff basketball at the Garden.
Follow Teddy Mitrosilis on Twitter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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