NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — The hard part is just about over for the Knicks.
Heightened expectations and a demanding schedule created a draining month of March. The Knicks complained of too much fatigue and too little fun, strange timing for a franchise that was enjoying its best season in a decade.
April should be easier — at least until those playoff games the Knicks are so close to qualifying for.
First, they close the month Wednesday with a visit from the Nets, ending a turbulent stretch they can’t wait to put behind them.
“This month has been just brutal,” Carmelo Anthony said Tuesday. “It’s been nonstop ever since the trade. I came straight from the trade off the plane to play in a game. We’ve been playing every other day, nonstop, back-to-backs. I laughed and joked about when I first got traded and I looked at the schedule: ‘I ain’t signed up for this.’
“But we knew as a team this was going to be a brutal month for us, so we just wanted to get through it to prepare for the playoffs.”
Amar’e Stoudemire called it “maybe the hardest month I’ve ever played in in my career.” It even included a game rescheduled from November, Monday’s 113-106 overtime victory over Orlando.
“And on top of that, we’re trying to get used to our new teammates,” Stoudemire said.
The Knicks never could have imagined it would be so difficult when the month opened. Just days after the blockbuster deal for Anthony, they went to Miami and beat the Heat in their final game of February. They stood in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and were even talking about moving up to fifth.
Instead, they went backward.
The Knicks are 6-11 in March and have tumbled into seventh place at 36-38. Spring arrived in New York with cold temperatures and an even more frigid team that lost nine of 10 games before outlasting the Magic behind 39 points and 10 rebounds from Anthony in his best game since the trade.
It was an auspicious time for Anthony to remind New York fans how thrilled they were over his arrival. The next day, his first sponsor to sign on since the trade, Boost Mobile, unveiled a 128-foot billboard a block from Madison Square Garden.
“Just moving forward, taking that step forward,” Anthony said as passing fans waved and called his name. “We brought a lot of excitement back not just to the Garden but to the whole city. Everyone’s excited about the new Knicks.”
Problem is, they’ve looked like the old Knicks against losing teams, and those are what they face over the rest of this four-game homestand. They host Cleveland on Sunday, trying to avoid an improbable and embarrassing four-game season sweep, then close it out by welcoming Toronto on Tuesday.
Win just a couple of them and the Knicks, with a magic number of four, could be back in the postseason. But they’ve curiously struggled against sub-.500 teams, one of many problems over the last month.
New York lost twice each to Indiana and Milwaukee during its 18-game schedule that included six sets of games on back-to-back nights.
“Lot of games, lot of nights, lot of things, and who knows what causes it, sometimes things sap your energy and you might not even be aware of it,” coach Mike D’Antoni said after Monday’s victory. “But with efforts like this, the team will come together and we’ll be better for it.”
D’Antoni has struggled to find answers during the swoon. He pointed to a lack of practice time, yet then canceled the team’s last two scheduled practices in favor of extra rest. He frequently changed his lineup, sometimes even from half to half, and alarmingly said before Monday’s game that he was “not sure who needs to play.”
At least he has Anthony, who had set his previous Knicks high two nights earlier. Stoudemire is more of a concern, appearing worn out after carrying the club for most of the season. The NBA’s fourth-leading scorer with 25.5 points per game has been held to 16 or fewer in three of the last five games.
But the Knicks believe the three-day break between games after Wednesday will help get some spring back in his legs.
“Both those guys will have big games and big moments, that’s what they do,” D’Antoni said. “Again, I just keep going back, if we can keep the intensity and the urgency right there, then we can get out of this slump for sure.”
With Chauncey Billups appearing back in form Monday after playing poorly most of the month following a bruised thigh March 1 that cost him six games, plus a solid defensive effort that held Dwight Howard without a field goal in the first half, the Knicks again had the look of a team that could cause trouble in the first round.
They could draw Boston, a team that’s having its own issues adjusting to a major trade. Or maybe it will be a Heat team they split with, including that impressive victory in Miami before everything went so wrong.
“I don’t really dwell on what happened before,” D’Antoni said. “We’ve got to take this and go forward, and again, we’ve been here before. We were like this against Miami and then it slipped away. We can’t let it slip away.”
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