Speaking to the media earlier this week, Knicks’ coach Mike D’Antoni outlined some of his goals for the remainder of the season.
Though the Knicks have been one of the league’s biggest surprises (currently holding the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed at 26-24), D’Antoni was modest, saying, "I think our focus has to be on trying to get to 40 wins. That should get us in the playoffs. Obviously, if we can get the sixth spot or the fifth spot or the seventh spot, you try to do the best you can do. Our goal all year is to get to the playoffs."
D’Antoni is right about one thing: it’s been “playoffs or bust” for the Knicks since this past offseason. After Donnie Walsh’s overhaul, reshaping the Knicks with a new leader in mega-star Amar’e Stoudemire, an expectation for the playoffs is only logical.
But therein lies the problem—reaching the playoffs should now be an expectation, not a hope. Given the Knicks’ exceeding expectations so far this season, with wins against teams like the Nuggets, Thunder, and Heat, the hope and/or goal should be to start climbing further up the Eastern Conference playoff ladder.
The Knicks are a still-growing team and that is understandable. Perhaps they aren’t going to be a “powerhouse” any day now. That being said, the team needs to at the very least hold steady at the sixth seed. With the seventh and eighth seeded teams currently holding losing records, it would be a shame to see the Knicks fall under .500 themselves, even if it were as little of a fall to the 40-42 record D’Antoni merely suggests would simply just get the Knicks in the playoffs.
Given the team’s schedule for the remainder of the season, finishing with any record under .500 should be considered a major falter for the Knicks. Currently sitting two games above .500 17 out of the team’s remaining 32 games are against teams that currently have losing records. The Knicks have three games each against the Nets, Pacers, and Bucks. Furthermore, three of the remaining games not against losing teams pit the Knicks against the Grizzlies, who currently at 27-26 should prove to be somewhat of an even matchup for the orange and blue.
The Knicks (as of now) certainly do not have two bona-fide “superstars”, and in a league that is gradually seeing teams with multiple stars (rather than overall depth) elevate to the top, perhaps that is a disadvantage. That being said, the All-Star (ish) play of Raymond Felton, along with the improved play of Wilson Chandler and the surprise rookie of the season, Landry Fields, have helped the Knicks contend much further than most thought to start the season.
While a trade (and/or summer signing) for Carmelo Anthony may ultimately be imminent, D’Antoni needs to provide his team (and its current players) the confidence that they can accomplish whatever they set out to. Stoudemire can certainly lead the way (D’Antoni recently emerged saying he was pro-passion in regard to the intense and sometimes criticized play of STAT), but there is no doubt that Stoudemire has seen serious support from his teammates as the season has progressed as well.
While a 20-12 record the rest of the way may be wishful thinking for the Knicks, the team has “overachieved” before, and if they can continue to be a threat to the league’s better teams, perhaps pulling out a couple extra wins against some contenders (in addition to appropriately beating up on teams weaker than them) could ultimately land the Knicks such a record.
Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored that the Knicks suffered early season losses to teams like the lowly Cavaliers, the Wizards, and Timberwolves. Is this current (yet visibly maturing) Knicks squad ready to move on from such flukes, or are they not yet strong enough to hold their ground consistently against teams they should not be losing to?
Even if the Knicks are granted room for error, their very favorable schedule should provide them with enough of an opportunity to finish with a more modest record of 17-15 through the rest of the second half of the season, helping them to a 43-39 final season win-loss total.
At first glance, some may consider that a reach. At the same time, taking 2 out of 3 (at least) against the Bucks and Nets should be a necessity for the Knicks at this point. Given the Pacers’ recent small surge under recently promoted intern head coach Frank Vogel, a prediction and/or expectation for the three games against the Pacers can wait for now.
By proclaiming that “the Knicks are back”, however, Stoudemire has created a buzz that the Knicks will also not let stronger teams completely manhandle them on a nightly basis like in seasons’ passed, so some more impressive wins should also be in store for the Knicks.
While this season has had its up and downs for the Knicks thus far, the remainder of the season will provide the team with a great amount of potential momentum to ride on into the playoffs with. If they can in fact do so, perhaps the team will make more noise than people think. The Knicks need to start thinking like a (playoff) contender.
The battle for the playoffs (and further proving their worth) goes on for the Knicks, but a firm vote of confidence (and perhaps a higher expectation) from Coach D’Antoni would certainly grant his team a bigger boost than he may think—they are starting to look like that may deserve it.
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