By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks had won five straight and six out of seven. They were closing in on a playoff spot, and playing their best basketball of the season. Far from out of the woods, they had two straight road games before starting an eight-game homestand that would be the key to their season. So what did the Knicks do? For two straight games, they decided to show absolutely no effort on defense, losing to the Charlotte Bobcats by 10 and the far-superior Indiana Pacers by 28.

There’s no shame in losing to the Pacers in Indiana, even in a blowout, but there is plenty of shame in how the Knicks came out and played defense in two straight games. Just to put it in context, the Pacers and Bobcats averaged 112.5 points per game, shot 50 percent from the field and made 43.2 percent of their threes. They attempted 28 free throws and committed only 10 turnovers (five each) in those two games. There is only one explanation for that type of defensive performance: not giving a damn. Lack of effort. Not trying. Take your pick. They all apply.

There is something to be said for defensive schemes, and Mike Woodson’s have been questionable the last two seasons, but those numbers only show up if the other team plays much harder than the Knicks.

There’s no explanation for the Knicks to have no-shows on the defensive end of the floor when they are fighting for their playoff lives. Only highlighting the irony, Knicks players had been talking for more than a week about how their improved defense was the key to their five-game winning streak. Apparently, they thought that was the time to flip the switch off on the defensive end of the floor. It is a coach’s job to keep his team playing hard on defense, and keeping his players engaged. Woodson failed to do that. Combine that with Carmelo Anthony’s criticism of Woodson’s inability (or unwillingness) to change the offense to counteract the Pacers’ defensive adjustments, and perhaps the coach’s seat might be a little warm again. Now, however, is not the time to change coaches.

Woodson and this team have one more chance to make a run at the postseason. The Knicks have eight straight games at home, six of which come against teams with records way below .500.

The other two teams are the Heat — to close out the homestand the night before the Super Bowl — and the Clippers on Friday night without Chris Paul. If the Knicks can manage a 6-2 or 7-1 record during that stretch it will put them 3-5 games under .500 and within striking distance of home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

The run has to happen now, or it isn’t going to happen. If the team isn’t at or near .500 near the All-Star break, the season is over, and the Knicks can begin to clean house. Even if that doesn’t mean trading Anthony, it could mean moving someone like Tyson Chandler to get back into the draft in 2014.

Woodson was also given a gift in disguise on Thursday night that could propel the Knicks on this run. It looks like both Kenyon Martin and Amar’e Stoudemire could be out a few games with their ankle injuries. With only a Chandler, Cole Aldrich, Andrea Bargnani and Jeremy Tyler as the team’s big men, Woodson will have no choice but to go small again. There simply aren’t enough bodies to play big. I suspect that Bargnani might even have to come off the bench just so Chandler has someone to replace him in the first quarter. His minutes have still been very limited.

Anthony will have to move back to the four and J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert will have to take a lot of their minutes at small forward. Both rebound well enough to play there if they have to. Ron Artest could be slid back into the rotation as well. It also means that Woodson will have to go back to the two point-guard lineups that worked so well last year with Ray Felton and the now healthy Pablo Prigioni.

Toure Murry can even see some time in the backcourt again. It’s something that critics of Woodson had been calling for all year, and now he will have no choice but to acquiesce. Last year, Woodson was forced into lineups he didn’t like, but it worked. It has happened again this season.

This is the last chance for the Knicks. If this doesn’t work and this stretch of home games turns into a disaster, you can fly the white flag on the rest of the season. If it does go well, perhaps Woodson will see the light and the Knicks will provide some entertainment into May. It’s now or never.

Woodson’s future as head coach is on the line, and perhaps even Anthony’s future as a Knick. That’s how important the next 15 days are to the future of this franchise. They better take advantage of it.

You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and the world of sports. 

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