By John Schmeelk
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I hope Knicks fans enjoyed the fact they didn’t even have to watch the game against the Cavaliers on Monday night.
For once, fans aren’t only concerned in April about whether the Knicks have their first-round draft pick. Instead, the Knicks got to rest all their starters last night because they have clinched the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. They could finish with 54 wins.
This is a huge big-picture accomplishment that no one should underestimate or take for granted — no matter what the Knicks do in the playoffs.
When I wrote at the end of October that New York would win 52 games and earn the second seed in the Eastern Conference, I thought I was being way too optimistic. I hit below the mark. If you would have told me back in October that that Amar’e Stoudemire would play 29 games, Carmelo Anthony would play 67 games, Tyson Chandler just 66, Ray Felton only 68, and Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby would contribute only 44 combined, I would have told you the Knicks were a .500 team.
Again, they could win 54.
There’s plenty of credit to go around. Mike Woodson is No. 1. He guided this team through countless injuries — and starting lineups — and still managed to make them the second-best in the East. The team won with an off-the-street Kenyon Martin replacing an All-Star in Tyson Chandler. They stayed afloat when Felton missed games in January (6-6). They even managed to win games when Anthony was out with his myriad of injuries (6-7). Woodson helped keep the team together in the worst of times, and there was no locker room drama.
The effect he had on individual players also can’t be underestimated. It’s not fair to give him all the credit for getting Stoudemire to be a willing bench contributor, but it’s also not fair to give him none of it. J.R. Smith looks like a different player now than at the beginning of the season. He has actually been an efficient scorer for the better part of a month. It’s visible how hard Woodson rides Smith, and it has paid off. Chris Copeland has become a useful player with a coach that demands more from him than just scoring. Woodson also deserves credit for adopting a lot of the spacing and high screen and roll aspects of Mike D’Antoni’s old offense. The Knicks were an elite offensive team for the most of the year, and Woodson deserves credit for doing something great in an area that was perceived as a weakness before the year started.
There are fair criticisms of Woodson. At times, his starting lineups didn’t make a whole lot of sense. The Knicks don’t play great defense for games at a time. Sometimes, they don’t put forth their best effort and look disinterested. But the results are really all that matters. Woodson has made this team into winners. They share the ball, play like a team and enjoy each other. He’s helped individual players improve. He’s done more or less everything anybody could ask from a coach. New York’s current mark of 53 wins is nothing to sneeze at.
Glen Grunwald is the second guy on the give-him-credit list. Criticized for bringing in too many older players, this team has been able to survive tons of injuries because of its depth. Older players like Wallace, Camby and Kurt Thomas got hurt, but Grunwald was able to replace them with Martin. Copeland was a great find overseas. Jason Kidd stayed healthy this year, and Pablo Prigioni was one of the Knicks’ highest rated players in terms of point differential when he was on the floor. Last offseason, Grunwald had very little flexibility with the salary cap but managed to put together a team that can challenge for a championship.
Finally, credit must be given to Carmelo Anthony. Much like with Woodson, you can still fault him for things like losing his cool, bouts of immaturity and not always giving the best effort on defense, but the proof is in the results. The Knicks landed the two-seed because of Melo. Without him, the Knicks aren’t a playoff team. He made them one of the elite offensive teams in the NBA. He passes the ball when it’s appropriate and scores when he has to.
Anthony has done all he can for the Knicks in the regular season, and now he needs to do the same in the playoffs.
That’s the shame here. If the Knicks don’t succeed in the playoffs, most people will forget this very improbable, fun and exciting regular season. But that’s how the sports world goes — and it will be no different for the Knicks.
It starts with Boston on Saturday, and Knicks fans hope this journey ends as well as it started.
I’ll give fans one important piece of advice: enjoy the postseason. Think back to Eddy Curry, Stephon Marbury, Larry Brown, Jerome James and Nate Robinson. Think back to all those 30-win seasons. Remember salary cap hell with no relief in sight. Remember how bad it was.
Now, enjoy how great this is, championship or not.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York sports.
How far will the Knicks go in the playoffs? Make your prediction in the comments…