Knicks 97, Sixers 92

Early in the season, the Knicks and Sixers were in similarly dire straits. Eleven games in, New York was 3-8 and in the midst of a six game losing streak. Meanwhile, the Sixers stumbled even more clumsily out of the gate, starting 3-13.

The difference lay in expectations. While the Knicks were projected to ride the sometimes bumpy learning curve to their first playoff appearance in seven years, most thought the Sixers would be content to leave only Toronto and New Jersey in their middling wake.

Fast-forward 5 months. While the Knicks have largely stuck to their up-and-down program, it’s been the Sixers who have completely re-written theirs, entering Wednesday’s showdown in sole possession of 6th place in the Eastern Conference at 40-38, a half-game ahead of New York.

But it was New York’s narrow 97-92 win that flipped the standings’ script – at least for a night.

Carmelo Anthony continued his recent torrid play, netting 31 with 10 rebounds, including five three pointers. During the Knicks’ five-game winning streak, Anthony has averaged 31.4 points and 8.8 rebounds, including 52% from beyond the arc and a TS% of 64%.

Amare Stoudemire added a belabored 18 on 19 shots, while Toney Douglas again provided a key spark off the bench, scoring 17 — many of them after replacing Chauncey Billups, who left with a minor right thigh contusion late in the third quarter.

Just as their new-found defensive intensity had in their previous four wins, Wednesday’s victory saw the Knicks exorcise yet another demon: that of the second half collapse. While the Bockers’ once again allowed an opponent to storm back – they were up by 13 at the start of the fourth –timely threes from Anthony and Douglas helped New York pull away down the stretch.

While the Sixers managed to start and stay anemic from the perimeter, their interior presence continued to give the Knicks fits, with Elton Brand and Thadeus Young combining for 49 points and 16 rebounds on 22-32 shooting.

The Knicks managed to keep Philly at bay with effective and timely three point shooting, going 11-31 from deep, compared to just 2-18 for their foes.

For a team just ten days removed from feeling both its fortunes and its fan base deteriorating by the New York minute, the Knicks’ recent streak certainly boasts a fortuitous timing. They’ll certainly need the momentum: With rest for many of the starters likely at some point during their final four games, at least the Knicks will have this stretch to look back to when the time comes rev up the playoff engines.

Mavs 127, Knicks 109

If Wednesday night’s Melo-dramatic last-second win was the euphoric party, Thursday’s Knickerblogger exchange was like the hangover: full of grumblings, confusion, and vague regret. Even after Carmelo Anthony’s first defining moment as a Knick helped deliver a gutsy win over the scrappy Grizzlies, skeptics preached patience and tempered expectations for what is – at the end of the day – still just the beginning of a lengthy evaluation process.

Let’s see what they do tomorrow night, against a certifiably elite opponent, they seemed to say.

A fair request, no doubt.

So how did they do?

For anyone who watched the Grizzlies game but couldn’t justify Thursday’s late-nighter, here’s the simplest way to describe what happened, emotionally: take the last two minutes of the Memphis game, multiply it by 24, and you get something approximating what went down at American Airlines Arena (minus a few steals)

Like the Knicks, the Mavericks were coming off a hard-fought slog the night previous – a 2 point loss to New Orleans which prompted Rick Carlisle to label his soldiers “soft”.

Wethinks they got the message.

On a night where  both teams were playing their 4th game in 5 days, the only thing “soft” was the touch of the Dallas jumpers, as the Mavs amassed a crippling TS% of 60%, including 11 of 24 from downtown. The resulting 127-109 thrashing brought the Knicks overall record to 34-30 – and 0-3 in the Melo Era against teams whose names end in “a-v-s”.

While the no doubt tired Mavericks used the juice of the home crowd to fuel their twine-tickling effort, the Bockers shot a forgettable 46% eFG%, getting routinely out-hustled for loose balls and long rebounds, and generally showing the predictable malaise of a team playing its 7th game in 10 nights.

Like last month’s equally lopsided affair, the Knicks struggled to keep the Mavs off the glass. And though the actual rebounding disparity – 45 to 37 – looks on its face like Knicks standard-issue, it seemed as if every offensive rebound came at a the most inopportune time. Shawne Marion in particular wreaked havoc in this department, reeling in 6 OREBs on a night when The Matrix seemed to tap into his 2004 Fantasy Monster form, scoring 22 points and generally bewildering the Knicks front line all night long.

For the sixth consecutive game, Toney Douglas started in place of Chauncey Billups, who continues to recover from Dwight Howard’s kneecap shrapnel. Fresh off an efficient (minus the shaky last couple minutes) 18 points and 10 assists the night before, Douglas played admirably opposite the confounding Cerberus of Jason Kidd and J.J. Barea, netting 18 and 8 with a 58% TS%, while committing no turnovers.

During Billips’ absence, TD has averaged 16.5 points and 7 assists with an EFG% of 66%. And though he’s provided his fair share of TDDWTDDs, Douglas seems to have put the woes of midseason squarely in the rear view mirror — at least for now.

Landry Fields continued his recent stellar play, banking 19 with 6 rebounds, 4 steals, and a certifiably Landrarian 82% TS%. Like Douglas, Fields’ last 5 games have been marked by a quietly impressive efficiency, and have seen the precocious neophyte rack up averages of 14.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and a rotund 75% TS%.

Amare Stoudemire had a hologram game (shiny, sparkly, not much there) that was as labored as it was inefficient, scoring 36 on 27 shots with a team low -23 for the night. Stat also managed to pick up his 16th technical foul of the season, which, if it’s not rescinded, means the Knicks will be sans his services for Sunday’s showdown with the Pacers.

Carmelo Anthony, meanwhile, didn’t provide much in the way of an encore to Wednesday’s stellar play, scoring 18 on 15 shots (although he did chip in 10 rebounds and 5 assists), as the omnipresent Marion succeeded in keeping Melo at bay for most of the game.

Down by as many as 26 in the second half, the Knicks staged a heart-felt comeback towards the end of the third, cutting the deficit to 11 early in the fourth. But the Mavs kept them at bay down the stretch, sending the Knicks home with a 1-1 split on their mini road trip.

The truly brutal March schedule in full swing, the Knicks might need to siphon the lingering energy from Saturday’s Big East finale before the Garden half of their home-and-home with the Pacers on Sunday. But with 3 sets of back-to-backs remaining before the month’s end, even these two much-needed days’ rest will probably seem like far too few for this understandably weary bunch.

Game Recap: Knicks 92, Hawks 79

That headline is not a typo. Tonight the Knicks held an opponent to less than 80 points for the first time since a 102-73 win over the Nets on April 15 of last year. The Hawks shot 45% from the field, got to the line only 9 times, and committed a woeful 19 turnovers en route to 79 points on 90 possessions. Considering the Knicks typically allow 109 points per 100 possessions, this was a considerable step up in defensive performance against an above-average offense.

Where did it come from? Hard to say. Turiaf was out, replaced by 27 minutes of Jared Jeffries. Jeffries didn’t strike me as having an exceptional defensive game, but the Hawks did seem to settle for a lot of mid-range jumpers (on which they were generally very unsuccessful), so maybe his presence counted for more than I noticed. The Hawks got 17 from J-Smoove, 15 from Kirk Hinrich, and 14 from our old frenemy Jamal Crawford, but aside from Hinrich everyone got their points at a pretty inefficient clip.

For their part, the Knicks scored a pedestrian 92 points on 90 possessions, including 26 on 20 shots from Amar’e, 15 on 11 shots from Landry Fields, and an UnMelonian 14-7-7 line on a slightly more Melonian 6/18 shooting clip from the Big Volumizer. Extra E made 4 threes and grabbed 6 rebounds. Anthony Carter turned into Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson for a few minutes in the second half.

To my eyes, this one had more to do with the Hawks having an off-game than the Knicks turning into the ’89 Pistons overnight. But no matter the cause, the Knicks got a 13 point win on the road against a good team and they got some late-game rest for a couple key players on the first night of a back-to-back. Ugly as it was, that’s a result you’ll take any day.

So what do you guys think, improved Knicks D or just incompetent Hawks offense? Do we want to see Jeffries take more of Turiaf’s minutes long term (I don’t)? What to do with all of our marginal wing players who are suddenly all demanding more PT with their play (Extra E, Anthony Carter, even Roger Mason’s Son)?

Déjà Vu All Over Again? Knicks Fall to Cavs 119-115

Down two points with the ball, it appeared that it was Carmelo Anthony’s time to display the clutch gene that has sports analysts raving about his late-game scoring. After posting an extremely efficient 29 pts on 16 shots, the stage was set for him to cement his place as the closer in NY. However, instead of taking one of the long two-pointers he is known for, (as he is often berated for early in games, and celebrated for when they are buzzer-beaters) he made the superior basketball decision to drive to the basket, but failed to see Samardo Samuels slide over and was called for an offensive foul with 1.8 seconds left. And after two Luke Harangody free throws, the game was over (the Knicks’ third excruciatingly close loss to the Cavs).

However, the real problem is that the ‘Bockers should never have been in that position in the first place. Give some credit to the Cavaliers: two back-to-back three-pointers by Anthony Parker and Baron Davis in the last minute gave them a four point lead they ultimately wouldn’t relinquish, but those shots came after the Knicks blew twelve point leads in both the first and fourth quarters. After promising that they would be much more focused after the disappointing loss to the Cavaliers last week, the leads seemed to lull the Knicks into relaxing defensively. The inability of Amar’e Stoudemire to score on putbacks after consecutive offensive rebounds was also distressing, although his stat line of 41 pts on 50% shooting was only marred by 5 turnovers.

So, is this game cause for concern? While the Knicks 0-3 record against the Cavs will certainly loom large if it is the difference between being the 6th or the 5th seed (or 6th vs 7th), I don’t think so. The Knicks actually won the rebound battle 39-37, and shot 54.5% from the floor, essentially what they shot in the Hornets game. However, the Cavaliers shot an incredible 57.1% from 3- perhaps somewhat attributable to weak D from the Knicks, but unlikely to be repeated either way. One key sequence that went against the Knicks that won’t be mentioned but was likely equally responsible for the loss: Melo being called for a charge earlier in the final minute as he passed out to Shawne Williams, who splashed the trey but had it waved off. Carmelo’s decision making is unlikely to be as poor in the future as it was tonight, too. If there is one positive to the statistical analysis that has been done on him, it is his phenomenal percentage relative to other stars in clutch situations, and he is more likely to shoot a jumper than drive, making it unlikely he’d be called for a charge again.

All in all, tonight was disappointing, but not something which is worth being too upset over. Chauncey will soon be back from his thigh bruise, hopefully improving our end-of-game execution, and our PNR defense has to get better (it can’t get much worse.) A Knicks fan’s final piece of consolation? It’s rather unlikely we’ll meet Cleveland in the playoffs.

Knicks 107, Hornets 88

Before Tuesday night’s 116-110 loss to the Magic, many of us were looking forward to Wednesday’s date with Chris Paul and the Hornets as a meaty matchup between Knick Point Guards present and – some would hope – future.  But with Chauncey Billups out of action with a bruised left quad, all eyes instead were on Toney Douglas. And what spicy buffalo eyes they were.

TD was hotter than the fire he’d been thrown into, hitting his first 4 shots – including a pair of 3s – generally making good decisions, and keeping CP3 largely in check in helping guide the NYK to a 107-88 win.

Douglas made the most of his second start of the season, tallying 24 points (including 4 from distance) on a truly filthy 94% eFG%, to go along with 4 rebounds and 5 assists. Meanwhile, CP3’s recent shooting woes – which included a 3-10 outing against the lowly Raptors the night before – continued in the Garden, as Paul finished with just 4 points on 2-7 shooting (although he did tally 10 assists).

For what seemed like the first time all year, the Knicks played another team on a back-to-back that looked more gassed than they were. With TD setting the tone, the Knicks netted a combined eFG% of 61% (including a refreshing 13/20 from downtown), as all five starters dished at least 4 assists. The Knicks took advantage of the Hornets’ palpable fatigue, attacking their front line inside early and restraining themselves to just 7 three point attempts in the first half, all the while moving the ball around with a crispness seldom seen in recent games.

And when New Orleans started collapsing in the second half, Shawne Williams made them pay, connecting on all four of his 3PT attempts in the final two frames. Extra E ended the night with a downright centennial 100% eFG% (6/8 with 4 threes). Perspective: he had been 4 for his last 23 from beyond the arc.

If tonight’s game was a bracing shot in the arm for Douglas and Extra E, it was at least a gentle waking nudge for Carmelo Anthony. In his second home game in the Garden, Melo had a slightly-better-than-typical-so-far outing, finishing with 22 on 18 shots with 4 rebounds, 4 assists, a Carmelo-y 53% TS%, and a healthy +16. Meanwhile the other arm of the law, Amar’e Stoudemire, finished with a sporadically dominating 24 on 19 shots for a wholesome and Amar’e-e 58% TS%.

Contributing to their outwardly pedestrian efficiency, both Stat and Melo struggled somewhat from the charity stripe, going a combined 10 for 16. Still, neither of the two forced the issue, and Melo in particular largely refrained from his beloved outside jumpers until late, choosing instead to attack the basket early.

Meanwhile, the recently slump-plagued Fields still managed to find ways to contribute, scoring 10 points with 3 rebounds, 4 assists, and one sigh-inducing second half triple that helped spark a Knicks run. Anthony Carter logged 18 feisty, heavy minutes spelling TD,  nabbing 7 rebounds and displaying his pesky brand of D. (Carter also scored 2 points, which means I lost my bet that Chris Paul’s knee brace would tally more blocks than Carter did points.)

Without their recently conscripted general, the Bocker’s proved they could handle a half-course slugfest against a solid – though clearly tired – defensive team. And while the Knicks actually had more turnovers (16 to the Hornets’ 14), New Orleans never found themselves in a fluid enough rhythm – or shooting well enough (just a 49% eFG%, including 3 of 14 from deep) – to capitalize.

But even better than how the unexpected starting 5 played, was the 5 on the court at closing time. Yes folks, Air Mason, She-Will, Jeffrightened (so stunning was his entry, apparently, that ESPN didn’t even have him in the box score until the 4th quarter), TDDWTDD and… NewlyAcquiredFromCharlotteSixEightSwingmanDerrickBrown… all got to bring us to the final horn. Mason in particular was heavily deluged in chant from an otherwise subdued crowd (The FreeMasons?  You can thank Robert for that one). The vibes worked, as Roger hit two long range jumpers to net perhaps his most rewarding 5 points in years.

And so it was that a night which many worried would turn into a Garden audition for Chris Paul morphed, instead, into a confidence-building 48 minutes for a number of Knicks. But with Billups questionable for Friday’s revenge-fest with Cleveland, Douglas in particular should be looking to turn tonight’s poised play into actual momentum for the home stretch. And maybe – if we’re really lucky – the future.

Knicks 114, Bucks 108

I take it you’re here to read about Toney Douglas?

Tonight, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups made their Knicks debuts. Both shot poorly from the field (10/25 and 4/12 respectively), but each made key contributions in the fourth quarter as the Knicks held on for a 114-108 win over a Bucks team that is just 8-22 on the road. On most nights this wouldn’t have been good enough, but the Bucks missed enough open looks and made enough telegraphed passes for the Knicks to keep their noses out in front. And Toney Douglas, who…wait this sentence needs it’s own paragraph:

Ahem. And Toney Douglas, who, all of 20 months since the day he was drafted, is now THE LONGEST TENURED NEW YORK KNICK, took care of the rest.

Douglas made all 7 of his two point attempts and 3 of his 5 three point attempts en route to 23 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals in his 29 minutes. Bigger perhaps than any of Douglas’ makes, though, was a full-speed, sprinting, leaping offensive rebound in the final minute that allowed the Knicks to burn an initial 24 seconds off the clock and, ultimately, allowed Carmelo Anthony to knock down an 8-foot jumper and play the role of hero on his first night as a Knick.

But we’re not here to talk much more about Douglas. As soon as news broke that he would be making his debut tonight, the game became about Carmelo Anthony and, to a lesser extent, fellow newbie Chauncey Billups. To the extent that we focused on the incumbent Knicks, we did so with an eye towards how they looked alongside their newer teammates.

‘Melo put up numbers — 27 and 11 in the end — and did well to limit his turnovers (he had two), but his shot was off all night and it was well into the second half before he knocked down a jumper. Once he did he looked far more comfortable, putting up 11 fourth quarter points — the two most important of which came on the tail end of the play detailed above. Melo’s first step and dribble penetration were there — even spectacular on a couple of occasions — and he was able to create plenty of space for himself. But whether it was jetlag, unfamiliar surroundings, or nerves, he just didn’t have his aim. He’ll never be a hugely efficient scorer, but he’s not gonna shoot 40% every night either. He’ll be fine on offense.

Defensively…ouch. It was as bad as advertised. ‘Melo was completely indifferent in switching on even the most straightforward Bucks ball movement, and he consistently floated off of his man to rim-hang and look for rebounds. Let’s hope he was tired and conserving his energy, but it was not an encouraging performance (despite a couple of steals).

Billups was more impressive, though he suffered from the same shooting maladies (4/12) that afflicted his fellow debutante. Chauncey made up for it with a well-rounded game — 21 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds, and only 2 turnovers — and a barrage of late game free throws (12/12) that helped secure the victory. Defensively, he frustrated Brandon Jennings with physicality and got a couple of steals — nothing spectacular but he more or less held his own. He was beaten a couple times by the much quicker Jennings, who would have had a better-looking stat line if not for a few bad misses at the rim.

Amare Stoudemire had a night to forget, seemingly as a result of his determination to make it a night to remember. He looked overenthusiastic all game, consistently shooting too strong, committing needless fouls to the point of disqualification, and ultimately registering his 15th technical of the season. He was, at least, 7 for 7 from the line — the sole highlight in an otherwise uninspiring stat line. He and Chauncey played reasonably well together; hopefully they’ll click much faster than did STAT and Felton, who needed a couple of weeks to get in rhythm back in November. He drew a foul off of one really great entry pass from Anthony as well — the ability of these two to coexist and enhance each other is obviously the rock upon which the Knicks have built their Church and we saw flashes of it tonight, although it will need to get much more consistent.

I don’t want to draw a bunch of conclusions from one game. Instead, I’d like to focus on what I expect from the new-look Knicks and comment on where tonight’s game matched those expectations.

OFFENSE:

1) Overall: Concerns over the efficacy of the Knicks’ “new” offense are premature and, at least in my opinion, pretty unconvincing. Essentially, the trade combined key pieces of the league’s 1st-rated (Denver) and 7th-rated (Knicks) offenses, while eschewing several of the more defensively competent members of each team (Nene, Afflalo, Anderson, Felton, Chandler). Does every single piece fit perfectly? No. Do I expect this group to make beautiful music from the get-go? Not really. But this will pretty immediately be a well-above-average offense with elite potential depending on how the personnel clicks and whether any additions are made. There’s just too much talent for that not to happen.

Tonight, the Knicks scored 114 points on — by my count — 99 possessions. That’s 115 per 100 possessions. Pre-trade, the Knicks averaged 109.8 per 100. Milwaukee, a strong defensive team, allows just 102.6 points per 100 possessions (5th best in the league). This all happened despite bad nights from the field by the Knicks 3 best players. The offense will be fine.

2) Field Goal Shooting efficiency: The knock against ‘Melo, as even a cursory review of our comment boards will reveal, is that he’s a volume scorer who doesn’t score efficiently. And his eFG% (.474) is not good — it’s actually slightly worse than Raymond Felton’s. Luckily for the Knicks, they’ve added Chauncey Billups, whose .536 eFG% is 34th in the league and 4th among point guards. And they still have the super-efficient Landry Fields, whose .590 mark has him 7th in the NBA and should only increase with better looks. Stoudemire is no slouch, with a .511 eFG% that is comfortably above league average. The trade also means more minutes (and, hopefully, more open looks) for Shawne Williams and Toney Douglas, each of whom has the potential to score with very high efficiency as a spot up shooter. Basically, the Knicks were 9th in the league in this category pre-trade and I would be surprised if they didn’t take a small step forward, although this relies somewhat on the Knicks bench players taking on bigger roles as floor-spacers.

Tonight, the Knicks put up a .550 eFG%, unsustainably high for a full team but certainly a nice first data point.

3) Free Throws: And this is where it could be awesome. There are 71 players in the NBA who play 30+ minutes per game and have usage rates above 20%. Of these 71, only 20 have free throw rates above 35 (i.e., they have 35 FTM for every 100 FGA). Of those 20, three are now Knicks. Billups, ‘Melo, and Amare will all spend tons of time with the ball in their hands, will use many of those possessions to get to the free throw line, and will convert the vast majority of these free throw attempts. As great as Gallo was at getting to the line, his usage rate was low enough that it didn’t have as big of an impact on the Knicks overall offense as it might have. That won’t be a problem here, and the Knicks may trail only the Thunder in terms of creating points at the line the rest of the year. It may seem unsexy, but this is likely to be the biggest immediate positive impact of this week’s trade.

Tonight was a promising start in this regard – the Knicks were 26 for 28 from the stripe, including a 12 for 12 showing from Billups, who didn’t even appear to have his legs under him yet.

DEFENSE:

It’s the flip-side of the point I made regarding offense — we’ve taken two already bad defenses (Knicks 21st in the league, Nuggets 23rd), largely shed the best defensive players from each side, and put them in the charge of the most offensively minded coach of his generation. The results will not be good, to be sure. But I’ve been kind of amazed at how heavily everyone has harped on this point. The Knicks defense was already pretty bad and it’s not like the guys we just gave away were dynamos. Billups is slower than Felton and ‘Melo has a rep for being a bit lazy on that end. But I also think the level to which Melo and Amare are invested in this monster of their own making will give them at least some extra motivation to work on that end. I see regression on defense, but not a ton. They couldn’t defend in the post before and they still can’t, they committed too many fouls before and they still will, they gave up too many second chances before and that will continue also. I think their switching will get a little bit worse, and their on-ball perimeter D will also take a step back unless Corey Brewer can carve out a spot on the rotation. But this isn’t life-altering stuff — It’s a C- turning into a D+.

Tonight they gave up 108 points on 99 possessions, which is right at their season average. Unfortunately, they did this at home against the worst offense in the league (Milwaukee typically scores 101 per 100). It was a bad night defensively, but both Billups and Melo looked exhausted and the group had no time to jell. Furthermore, the Knicks were opportunistic, creating 20 points off of 15 turnovers, including two steals each by the new arrivals. The one thing the Knicks have done well on defense all season is force turnovers — they did it again tonight, and they’ll continue to do it all season.

Overall, the method will change (more iso, less threes, shorter bench) but this team’s output shouldn’t change a ton on a per possession basis. They’ll be better once ‘Melo is in the flow of things, but even when their stars are clicking, the Knicks will still need big nights from role players to measure up to the league’s elite. When the stars are off, those same role players will have to save them. Tonight, Toney Douglas obliged.

Some games matter: 5 key matchups for the home stretch

I was already well into writing this mid-season missive when word of the Melo deal became all but official. Which, in a way, is appropriate: it seems as though no writer, blogger, or player has been able to do his job this year without constantly being confronted with the about-faces and game-changers which made the Melodrama the unprecedented media circus that it was. But regardless of the squad we cheer out of the tunnel on Tuesday, our Bockers face a tough home stretch, as the race for the final three playoff spots gets tighter in a much improved East.

The Knicks entered the break at 28-26; good for 6th in the conference, though only 2 games ahead of Philly and 4 ahead of current 8th seed Indiana. With what is looking like basically a brand new team, it’s difficult to hypothesize how the Knicks come out of the gate. Still, we can at least take marginal comfort in the fact that Philly (SOS of .543) and 9th seed Charlotte (.513) have the 1st and 3rd hardest schedule in the Eastern Conference, respectively. The Pacers (.443) and 10th seed Milwaukee, however, boast the 2nd and 4th easiest schedules in the Conference going forward, while the Knicks stand in 6th, with an SOS of .466.

So we shouldn’t worry about a fresh-faced Knicks squad being thrown into the kind of hellish stretch that occupied much of December and January’s schedule, which should help make what will no doubt be a quick on-the-job-gelling a little easier. That said, Philly, Charlotte, Milwaukee and Indiana are all scrappy and talented enough to make us heed the rearview mirror’s wisdom: all objects are much, much closer than they appear.

So with that, let’s take a look at 5 key games in the home stretch and what each of them mean for our springtime dash to the postseason:

February 23rd – vs. Milwaukee:

“Ouch. Not much to say about this one.”

Such was the opening salvo for the recap of this disaster, played November 9th in Milwaukee. Some will remember this as the game Milwaukee led 41-19 after the first quarter. Others will remember it as Anthony Randolph’s last meaningful outing (If I had his 8,9,2,2,2 consistently from the end of my fantasy basketball bench, I’d be 1st instead of 6th). But all of us should remember taking away one thing in particular from what was, at the time, our worst performance of the season: we don’t always match up well against defensive-oriented, fundamentally sound teams. It certainly was the case that night, as the Bockers tallied a putrid eFG% of just 41%, while the Bucks – led in a balanced attack by Brandon Jennings’ efficient 19 (69% eFG%) – shot a scintillating 54% eFG% as a team.

Currently the Bucks sit at 3 and ½ games behind Indiana for the 8th and final playoff spot. With Brandon Jennings on the mend and the Bucks closer to full strength than they’ve been in months, they’re sure to come into the Garden hungry. And they’ll have the confidence teams tend to have after blowing someone out by 26.

As it’s likely to be the first time seeing Melo and Billups sporting the orange and blue, Tuesday’s matchup shouldn’t be looked at as a make-or-break game for the new look Knicks. But proving that they can take a little bump-and-grind from a team that’s actually been to the playoffs would, at the very least, be good on-the-job training for our almost inevitable run-in with the Celtics or Bulls come April.

March 13th & 15th – vs. & @ Indiana:

We’ve all seen it: the team that – for good or ill – fires its coach in midseason, hires his top assistant, only to see the team respond with a sense of immediacy few thought was possible. We saw it in Charlotte when Larry Brown departed, as Paul Silas’ loosening of the reigns helped the Bobcats win 6 of their next 8. Likewise, since firing Jim O’Brien the Pacers have gone 6-3, helping put Indiana into the 8th seed in the East with a record of 24-30.

The Knicks dispatched the Pacers down the stretch of their lone January 2nd meeting, although even that required a late flurry by Stoudemire, who scored 6 of the team’s last 7 points en route to a 98-92 win. This was also the game which saw Gallo leave with a sprained knee late in the 4th, a tweak that would keep him out for the next two weeks. Indeed, to call it a strange game would be an understatement: Indiana hoisted up 99 shots, netting an ugly eFG% of 41%. The Knicks, meanwhile, didn’t fare much better, racking up an eFG% of 47% on just 73 shots. Not surprisingly, Indiana’s +12 rebounding margin – including a 21-9 advantage on OREBs – helped contributed to their 26 shot advantage. Obviously, if the Knicks expect to even a split of this crucial home-and-home, they’ll have to do better on the boards, as it’s almost a given the Pacers won’t be as anemic in their shooting as they were for the January matinee.

Seven of Indiana’s next 11 games are against sub .500 teams. Meanwhile, 6 of the Knicks’ next 10 are against teams above .500, a stretch that includes rematches with Miami, Dallas, Orlando, Utah, and Atlanta. By the time March 13th rolls around, we could be looking at a playoff-like atmosphere, with two old foes squaring off for their first meaningful contests in almost a decade. Short of being a disaster, losing both of these games would almost certainly change the nature and scope of the 6-8 seed scrum in the East.

March 21st – vs. Boston:

Amar’e Stoudemire is shooting 50% from 3 this year. He should be shooting 67%.

We all know the clock should have read 0.7, and not 0.3. We all know we were leading much of the way– and by 7 after 3 quarters – having forced Boston into an up-tempo game that seemed to fall right into our hands. Unfortunately, the Celtics came out firing in the 4th quarter, hitting 4 of 8 from behind the arc before Pierce closed it out with a vintage fadeaway from the wing that sucked the air out of the Garden so fast you wondered how the building managed to stay standing.  And though Stat’s buzzer-beaten three brought back for a fleeting moment an insane energy and raucousness not seen in the World’s Most Famous in what seems like eons, even Spike Lee’s manic court theatrics weren’t enough to exorcise the devil we all already knew: Stat’s gorgeous can was the thinnest of hairs too late.

The Knicks have played the Celtics tough in both contests, and seem to have an uncanny knack of forcing the C’s out of their methodical, half-court sets and into occasional track meets. But the Celtics are the Celtics for a reason: they find ways to win down the stretch, regardless of tempo or deficit. The Knicks have twice found this out the hard way.

With Boston looking at no less than the 3 seed, it’s not like this game carries critical weight for either side in terms of playoff implications – at least not looking at it today. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. If anything, the March 6th meeting could provide an important bellwether for a Knicks squad which — despite still being arguably one piece removed from a certifiable Big Three — is doubtless eager to show the original incarnation that the coming decade will mean a change of guard in the Atlantic Division.

April 12th – vs. Chicago

With the game after this one – the second night of a back-to-back, no less – being the regular season finale in Boston, you could almost combine the two in terms of importance, a la the mid-March showdown with the Pacers. But the Chicago game in particular will likely have more immediate implications for the Knicks, who, if the season ended today, would be looking at a 7 game series with their old nemesis. Of course, by the time the actual games rolls around, we could easily be looking at the Boston game as the tone-setter, if Chicago’s now full-strength squad were to make a big enough run to steal the 2nd seed from the Celtics.

Barring catastrophe, April 12th will mark the first time the Knicks have seen a Bulls squad at full strength. When the teams first met way back on November 4th – a 120-112 win that saw the Knicks net an absurd TS% of 65%, connecting on a season high 16 threes – Carlos Boozer was still recovering from thumb surgery, helping the Knicks to a +4 rebounding margin that almost certainly have been prevented otherwise. I say “almost certainly” because, during the Knicks’ 103-95 Christmas Day win in the Garden, Boozer made up for his earlier absence with a 26 and 19. However this time it was Joakim Noah missing from Chicago’s front line, as a second half Knick surge and overall balanced attack helped the Bockers eke out an important win.

With the Bulls having won 10 of their last 12, Derrick Rose playing out of his mind, and Noah set to return in just over a week, the Knicks’ final home game promises to be as amped as these two teams’ feud is bitter. While there’s a chance the Bulls could find themselves solidly seeded with no incentive to go higher than 3rd gear, Tom Thibodeau’s squad is hungry and talented enough to make this one a statement game regardless.

But if both teams wake up the morning of the 12th fighting for their respective 3rd and 6th seeds, well, expect some strange ghosts to be circling the Garden from floor to rafters, and look for both teams to treat it like the playoff game it will almost certainly feel like.