By John Schmeelk
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As Knicks fans panic after every setback (I didn’t realize losing a game on the road against the defending champions was a crime), my mind continues to drift back to past days. I remember the calls to fire Jeff Van Gundy in 1999 when the Knicks got off to a slow start and sputtered while trying to figure out a very new roster. Like in 1999, fans and media are jumping the gun. The Knicks are actually in a pretty good position.

In 1999, in only a 50 game season, the Knicks were at .500, 21-21 after 42 games. They had lost four straight games, the latest a game against the Sixers in which they scored 67 points. That team would win six of their final eight, get the final seed and upset the Heat in the first round of the playoffs. It’s widely thought if Allan Houston doesn’t hit that game-winning shot against the Heat that Jeff Van Gundy loses his job. There is such a narrow margin between disaster and triumph, and the present day Knicks are in a much better position today than the 1999 Knicks were.

Looking at the standings, the Knicks are only three games and a half games out of first place in the Atlantic Division behind the Celtics and the 76ers. That would move them into the sixth spot in the conference, avoiding the Heat and Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. That’s all the Knicks need to do in the regular season, finish sixth. As long as they avoid Chicago and Miami, they’ll have a great chance to get out of the first round and get a taste of playoff basketball before having to take on one of the two Eastern Conference powerhouses. The Knicks have 28 games to make up three and a half games in the standings, something that is very easy to imagine.

Granted, the Knicks schedule is very tough the rest of the season, but the roster is not going to change again and the team is the healthiest it has been all year (spare Tyson Chandler’s left wrist). It’s far more important for the Knicks to be playing their best basketball heading into the playoffs than to get the third or fourth seed. The New York Giants made it all the way to the Super Bowl despite making the playoffs by the skin of their teeth. A magical run is much more difficult with the NBA’s seven game format, but still possible, as everyone saw when the Knicks did the same thing in the lockout shortened 1999 season.

The similarities between this team and that one are startling. Both teams were trying to integrate new pieces in a lockout shortened season, and only found chemistry as the season went along. Both teams had a very strong bench unit that often outplayed the starters. As one of the video coordinators for the Giants, Steve Venditti, pointed out to me the other day the Knicks had Latrell Sprewell, Marcus Camby, Chris Childs all coming off the bench in that season. I still remember the screams of how those three should be starting for Allan Houston, Kurt Thomas, and Charlie Ward.

The fact of the matter is that those three provided a completely different tempo and game, something opposing teams had trouble dealing with after playing against the more methodical and rugged Patrick Ewing/Larry Johnson/Charlie Ward/Kurt Thomas/Allan Houston starting lineup. Sprewell, Camby, and Childs would hit the court and start running up and down and spark the entire team. JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, Baron Davis, and Steve Novak can do the same for this group. It was that bench unit that pushed the Knicks team over the top, and this year’s group has the same potential.

Of course, the first team has to carry its own weight, and that conversation begins with Carmelo Anthony. He has to play better than he did against the Mavericks last night if the Knicks have a prayer of making any noise in the playoffs. Much like in 1999, once Patrick Ewing’s season ended against the Pacers, they had no chance of beating the San Antonio Spurs. Teams need their stars, and the Knicks need theirs. Perhaps Amar’e Stoudemire’s explosive performance last night will help get him going. Or will he be constantly hobbled like Ewing was in 1999? If both those guys start playing the way they can, this team can be something special. There are going to be bumps on the road but it can happen, just like it did in 1999.

You can follow me on twitter for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York Sports at:!/Schmeelk.