The New York Knicks do not make sense.
And just when you think these Knicks are dead and buried, they claw their way to daylight amid the wreckage of the Eastern Conference.
The Knicks appeared to have their work cut out for them Wednesday night with a rivalry game against the red-hot Brooklyn Nets. Unlike the Knicks, the Nets long ago put aside their disappointing start to the season. They've been one of the NBA's best teams since the calendar flipped to 2014, with a 30-12 record in that time—including a 103-80 beatdown of the Knicks on Jan. 20.
If anyone could shut down New York, it would be Brooklyn.
That didn't happen. Instead, the good Knicks showed up and made short work of the Nets, cruising to a 25-point lead at the half en route to a 110-81 win. Coupled with the Atlanta Hawks' 105-92 loss to the Chicago Bulls, Wednesday's victory propelled New York into a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East.
That's right, Knicks fans, the eighth seed! It would have been an embarrassing consolation prize at the start of the season, with the team coming off an Atlantic Division title. It was an unreachable star just four weeks ago, when the Knicks were mired in 11th place, six games behind Atlanta.
Yet here we are. The team still has a great deal of work ahead of it, and it'll need even more help from Atlanta, but Wednesday night was a massive step in the right direction.
A Wing and a Prayer
The Knicks are now 12-3 in their last 15 games, and MSG's Alan Hahn couldn't help but notice a correlation between their recent uptick in play and the addition of J.R. Smith and Amar'e Stoudemire into the starting lineup:
But that doesn't tell the whole story of New York's rise. True, Stoudemire has played much better since being inserted into the starting lineup, but he sat out two of those 15 games to protect his damaged knees, and the Knicks won both contests.
The secret to New York's success has never been the interior scoring of Stoudemire. The Knicks were a much better team last year when he was on the disabled list. Instead, the difference between victory and defeat for New York has often been decided by the play of its wings.
The team got that quality Wednesday...and then some.
Head coach Mike Woodson started the game with a clear strategy against the small Brooklyn front line: Get the ball to Stoudemire. The Knicks' big man touched the ball nearly every time down the court. While he did shoot efficiently, he also killed any semblance of ball movement. The game remained tied at 18 when Woodson subbed out the power forward late in the first quarter.
With his preferred offensive weapon (after Carmelo Anthony) on the bench, Woodson played a three-wing lineup of Smith, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr.—three players whom have drawn the ire of Knicks fans at times this season.
The mercurial Smith has struggled through a controversial season that included a drug suspension and multiple benchings. Shumpert might very well have been shipped out of New York if he hadn't injured his knee before the February trading deadline. And even Hardaway had seemingly hit a rookie wall, shooting below 30 percent from beyond the arc over his last 28 games.
But for one glorious evening, all three wings worked to perfection as the Knicks dropped the hammer on Brooklyn. Smith led all scorers with 24 points while chipping in eight rebounds and six assists in a tremendous all-around effort.
Hardaway shook off a recent shooting slump and an ankle injury to chip in an efficient 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting, including this first-quarter buzzer-beater:
But it was the play of Shumpert that was the most surprising. He scored 10 points, making it only his fourth game in double figures since the beginning of February.
It was his defense, however, that truly set the tone for New York. Shumpert nearly single-handedly disrupted the precision Brooklyn passing attack that carved up the Houston Rockets for 23 assisted buckets Tuesday.
Shumpert led the way with five steals, as the Nets only managed 11 assists Wednesday. Point guard Deron Williams in particular struggled against Shumpert's hounding defense, failing to record an assist. It was only the fourth time in Williams' nine-year career that he played at least 20 minutes and did not notch at least one dime.
Shumpert, Smith and the Home Stretch
|Knicks and Hawks' Remaining Schedule|
|New York (33-43)||Atlanta (32-42)|
|Washington Wizards||Cleveland Cavaliers|
|@ Miami Heat||@ Indiana Pacers|
|@ Toronto Raptors||Detroit Pistons|
|Chicago Bulls||Boston Celtics|
|@ Brooklyn Nets||@ Brooklyn Nets|
|Toronto Raptors||Miami Heat|
|@ Milwaukee Bucks|
If the Knicks are going to complete this miraculous comeback and make the playoffs, they will need more nights like this from Smith and Shumpert. Both players have the chance to at least partially redeem their underwhelming seasons with a strong April.
Smith quietly put together an excellent month of March, scoring 15.5 points per game on 45.1 percent shooting (40.2 percent from three).
Shumpert does not have those kind of numbers, but the team simply plays better with him in the lineup. The Knicks are 1-7 this season in games Shumpert missed due to injury. New York has scored 106.6 points and allowed 102.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the court this season, making him one of only four Knicks with a positive net rating, along with Carmelo Anthony, Pablo Prigioni and Kenyon Martin, per NBA.com.
He may not be a great player, but the Knicks play better with him on the court.
It falls on Woodson, then, to utilize his best perimeter defender properly. The coach was quick to praise Shumpert for his work on D after the game, per The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring:
But he has also shown the bizarre tendency to put Raymond Felton on the opposition's primary ball-handler, a fact not lost on WFAN's John Schmeelk:
Even if the Knicks play up to their potential, they will need more help from Atlanta. The Hawks still have one fewer loss than New York, so if both teams were to win out, Atlanta would stay in front.
But the Knicks cannot afford to worry about Atlanta. They have a difficult schedule ahead—six games left against the playoff-bound Wizards, Heat, Raptors (twice), Bulls and Nets—and they're just as capable of losing all of their remaining games.
All we can say of the New York Knicks at this point is that they've given themselves a legitimate chance of making the postseason. Nobody knows what will happen over the next few weeks, but one thing will be sure: It's going to be a strange ride.
*All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.