By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks have won 10 straight games, and the best one of them all came against the Hawks on Wednesday night. The game was the second of a road back-to-back against a playoff team at full strength that is playing for seeding in the Eastern Conference. Tyson Chandler played, but he clearly wasn’t at full strength. It’s easy to say that the Knicks’ win against Memphis last week was better, but they won that game with insanely hot shooting. The win against the Hawks on Wednesday night was about things that are much more sustainable, like defense.

Fourth-quarter defense was a strength for the Knicks early in the season, but it has slipped as the season has gone along. All season the Knicks have shown that when they are locked in and give real effort on defense, they can be suffocating. They did it in the second half against the Heat on Tuesday and did it to the Hawks on Wednesday. After a first half in which the Knicks held Atlanta to 43 percent shooting, the Hawks scored 28 points in the third quarter while shooting over 50 percent. The Knicks changed that in the fourth quarter. The Hawks shot 50 percent but managed to score only 14 points, thanks to seven turnovers forced by a motivated Knicks defense that contested nearly every pass that the Hawks made. The Knicks finished with five steals in the fourth quarter, and the Hawks had just 12 field-goal attempts and four free throws.

From the opening whistle the Knicks also showed a lot of progress on their perimeter defense on Jeff Teague. Teague had killed the Knicks earlier in the season, and was more or less able to get to the hoop at will. He finished Wednesday night’s game with 15  points and nine assists, but the Knicks also forced him into six turnovers. Some of the credit goes to the myriad of Knicks perimeter defenders that guarded Teague, but also give credit to the help defenders who rarely gave Teague a clear path to the basket. The Hawks scored only 82 points, a low total by any measure. (The Hawks did only shoot 9-of-19 from the line, but even after adding another half-dozen points the defense was still good enough to win.)

The Knicks also won the game on Wednesday night despite shooting only 32 percent from behind the arc. And they received a mere mortal shooting performances from everyone not named Carmelo Anthony (more on that later). Despite not getting some calls going to the basket early in the game, J.R. Smith settled down and shot 5-of-8 in the fourth quarter. His 8-of-15 stat line with 19 points is a more realistic playoff goal than his insane stretch last week. Despite his five turnovers, if the Smith from Wednesday night shows up in the playoffs, the Knicks will be in decent shape.

Then you had Anthony, who dropped 40 on another ridiculous shooting night (17-of-27). For the second straight night with a scoring milestone within reach, Anthony was a willing passer out of the double-team. It was his unselfish play that helped the Knicks score as efficiently (63 percent from the field) as they did in the fourth quarter. Anthony shot just 2-of-5 in the fourth, but he made the team better. His passing has almost gotten to the point where the Knicks’ offense actually runs a lot better when Anthony is double-teamed. It’s when he continues to try to score one-on-one (and isn’t shooting like he did the last two nights) when the Knicks offense struggles the most. He scored in the post, and once against dominated with his mid-range jumper. He played like a star and a winner.

I am very concerned, however, about Kenyon Martin’s knee and Chandler’s neck. It’s clear that the latter is not 100 percent healthy, and he wasn’t very mobile during the game. He said after the game that he had trouble looking up to find the ball. That’s a problem. Martin’s sore knee is at risk of being chronic given his past knee surgeries. The Knicks need both those guys at 100 percent in the playoffs if they want to get to the Eastern Conference Finals. Pardon me for not having a lot of faith in the Knicks’ medical staff.

If the Knicks continue to play this way, they have a legitimate shot at getting the two seed, which would tip a potential second-round series with the Pacers in their favor. Playing a Game 7 in Indiana would be no prize. If the Knicks keep playing defense the way they are, and Anthony stays hot, they won’t have to.

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

Do you agree that last night’s win was the most impressive for the Knicks over this streak? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…

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