The New York Knicks take on the Nets for the final time in New Jersey on Wednesday, but Carmelo Anthony and co. don’t really have time to reflect on their storied rivalry.
The Knicks, who dominated the Boston Celtics in perhaps their best performance of the season on Tuesday, enter Wednesday’s contest one game ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers for the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Sixers. New York is also 2 ½ games up on the ninth-seated Milwaukee Bucks, but are tied head-to-head with them (the second tiebreaker, if necessary, would be the conference record). With five games remaining in the Knicks’ regular season schedule, they’re 3 ½ game behind Boston for the Atlantic Division lead and if the Celtics’ win and the Knicks lose on Wednesday, New York will be eliminated from contention for the division title altogether.
Though, with a favorable schedule ahead of them and a resurging Anthony at the helm, the Knicks have a chance to steal the division. Since interim head coach Mike Woodson took over for the much-maligned Mike D’Antoni, New York is 13-5 and are playing an inspired brand of basketball that features in-your-shorts defense and a rejuvenated supporting cast. The Knicks bench outscored the Celtics bench 55-2 on Tuesday and JR Smith and Steve Novak erupted for 25 points apiece and largely contributed to the Knicks tying the NBA’s single-game 3-point record at 19. Yet, as refreshing as it is to have New York’s bench come alive, the Knicks’ success still solely rests on the shoulders of Melo.
Anthony drew heavy criticism for the Knicks’ early-season struggles this year, and he was disparaged even more when the team played well without him under the rise of Linsanity. But since Lin went down with a season-ending knee injury and Amar’e Stoudemire became sidelined due to a bulging disk, Melo has played his most efficient basketball. Over the last 12 games in Stoudemire’s absence, Anthony’s averaged 31.7 points per game on better than 50 percent shooting—he only shoots 39 percent when sharing the floor with Stoudemire. He’s also shooting eight percent higher from beyond the arc when Stoudemire’s off the floor. On Sunday, Anthony scored 42 points against the Miami Heat and followed it up with his second-career triple-double (35 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists) on Tuesday against the Celtics. With his recent explosion, could Stoudemire’s potential return—he may be reinserted into the lineup as soon as Friday—hinder the Knicks’ and ultimately Melo’s success?
Before Melo arrived in New York, Amar’e averaged 26 points per game and he was the Knicks’ unquestionable leader. In 43 games this season, Stoudemire averaged 17.6 points and eight rebounds on 47 percent shooting. He did it with a questionable back and knees, and he accepted a lot of criticism thrown his way for the Knicks’ underachieving play after the All-Star break. Still, the fact remains, in order for the Knicks to be successful in the postseason, they need Amar’e to be healthy and resemble his former self.
Coach Woodson knows Stoudemire and Anthony’s stats may suffer when they share the court together, but he’s still going to start STAT in an effort to make things work between the two superstars. Anthony is a great player, who is probably one of the best pure scorers in league next to Kevin Durant, but his teams have lost in the first round of the playoffs seven times out of eight times. With the Knicks set to face the top-seeded Bulls or the second-seeded Heat in the first round this year, the odds favor Melo ending up 1-for-9 in the postseason, but the way New York has performed this month, the odds don’t really matter. A healthy Amar’e Stoudemire could make the Knicks a first round opponent that neither the Bulls nor the Heat should want to face.