By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks deserve a lot of credit for sitting in a virtual tie with the Pacers for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ve won eight straight, and if not for a similar five-game winning streak for the Pacers, they would be in the driver’s seat for home-court advantage until the Eastern Conference Finals. Even more impressive is that the Knicks did it without Tyson Chandler, perhaps their one irreplaceable player.  No matter the competition or the circumstances, a winning streak of that caliber is impressive.

But this one does carry some red flags for the Knicks.

The wins have come largely because of an improved offense led by J.R. Smith, and some very poor competition. The Knicks have averaged 104 points per game, almost five points ahead of their season average. Their shooting percentage has jumped five percent to 49 percent. During the streak, the Knicks’ offense has been the best in the NBA, averaging 117.7 points per 100 possessions. Their three-point shooting has jumped about 4 percent, and the team is shooting about two more free throws per game. Are any of those numbers sustainable?

Honestly? Probably not. During the eight-game winning streak, five wins came against teams that ranked 30th(Bobcats), 26th(Magic), 23rd, 23rd (Raptors twice) and 21st (Jazz). The Celtics were playing without their best defensive player and leader in Kevin Garnett to account for two more wins. The final game came against Memphis, which has no asterisk. To think this type of offensive output is going to continue against some of the best defensive teams in the league is probably not realistic.

Most of the offensive improvement can be traced to Smith and the best run of his career. He has shot 52 percent over that stretch and averaged almost nine free throws per game, leading to a 25 ppg average. His average plus/minus over the streak has been 12.5. The improved productivity and efficiency (even more important) can be attributed to his newfound dedication to taking the ball to the basket. To Smith’s credit, he has adjusted his game and it has paid serious dividends for him and the team.

Here’s the problem: He’s unlikely to have the same type of success getting to the hoop in isolation situations when the Knicks face some of the better defensive teams in the playoffs. The Pacers, Bulls, Heat, Hawks and Celtics (with Garnett) are all top 10 defensive teams. They know how to not only guard on the perimeter, but also help on penetrators. Smith can still be better than he was against those teams, but 50 percent from the field and 20 points per game is foolish. Those teams are too good defensively to let one guy in isolation beat them off the dribble.

Ball movement wins in the playoffs. Teams scout opponents relentlessly, and by the third game both teams are very familiar with one another. During this win streak the Knicks’ ball movement hasn’t been much better than it was before. Despite scoring more points and shooting a higher percentage, the Knicks are averaging nearly two FEWER assists per game during the winning streak than they were before. The Knicks have scored better because their individual players have thrived one on one, not because the ball is moving.

The defensive improvement has also been marginal. During the season as a whole the team has allowed 103.1 points per 100 possessions. During the winning streak that number stands at 101.9. (The offense, on the other hand, is 9.5 points per 100 possessions better.) This might also have something to do with the Knicks’ schedule, with their opponents ranking 28th (Bobcats), 27th (Magic), 22nd (Celtics twice sans Garnett), 19th (Memphis), 16th (Toronto twice) and 11th (Utah). The argument can be made that the Knicks’ defense hasn’t improved at all based on the quality of their competition. Of course, the loss of Chandler — the team’s best defender — does equalize things a bit. I’ve argued all year that if the Knicks made themselves a top 10 defensive team and kept their offense in the top five (currently third), they could contend. A 101.9 defensive ranking (what they had during the win streak) would put them at 11th. The defense is getting better, but it’s not there yet.

It’s not my intention to pour water on the hopes and dreams of Knicks fans. It’s important to be realistic as to where this team is in comparison to the rest of the NBA. I still think that they will get to the second round and be in a coin-flip seven-game dog fight with the Pacers.

Then you hope that the Knicks’ shooters get hot against the Heat. If they do, anything can happen. The Knicks (and their fans) just can’t be satisfied with how they are playing. They still need to get better if they want to get to the Eastern Conference Finals and be more than a nuisance to the Miami Heat.

Schmeelk’s Snippets

– Even with Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Mario Chalmers all out, the Knicks better be ready to play Miami on Tuesday night. The Heat’s backups have pride and will give the Knicks all they have. If the Knicks do play well, however, they should be able to extend their winning streak. It’s a shame that the Heat are resting their best players. I was really looking forward to Tuesday’s game to judge how real this Knicks streak has been.

– Give some credit to the Pacers. Their five-game winning streak is perhaps even more impressive than the Knicks’. They’ve won at home vs. Atlanta and then four straight on the road against Houston, Dallas, Phoenix and the Clippers. They have Oklahoma City coming up, which might give the Knicks a shot to jump them in the standings. Their matchup with the Knicks later in April looms very large.

You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York sports.

Do you agree that this current winning streak carries some red flags, or is there nothing at all to complain about? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…

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