By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks are slowly turning it around, and looking more like the team that won night after night last season.

Whether it’s been improvements in ball movement, shooting or defense, the team has put a much better brand of basketball on the court. But there’s one thing the Knicks haven’t been able to do — even during their recent winning streak.

They can’t close games.

Last season, the Knicks were one of the best fourth-quarter teams in the entire league. Their ‘D’ became elite in the final 12 minutes with an amazing 99.0 defensive rating (points per 100 possessions), which was the third-best number in the NBA. The offense was the second-best in the league, as was the team’s net rating (10.2). The Knicks dominated the most important quarter, and it helped win them a ton of games.

This season, it’s been the opposite. The team’s offense and defense in the fourth quarter has ranked 23rd and 22nd in the NBA, respectively. Their fourth-quarter point differential adjusted for pace is 26th-worst in the league. When the Knicks have needed to be at their best, they have been at their worst. Even in the past eight games, in which New York has gone 6-2, the fourth-quarter performance has been awful.

In fact, it’s been even worse than the forgettable months of November and December.

The defense has been the third-worst unit in the league in the fourth quarter, and the offense is only ranked 19th. The team’s net rating (point differential per 100 possessions) stands at third-worst in the league. How can you win like that? Coincidentally, the Knicks’ first-quarter performance has been just as bad, suggesting that Mike Woodson’s lineups to start and end games have been extremely flawed.

Last season, Woodson found a go-to fourth-quarter plan and stuck with it. Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd and J.R. Smith played four times as many minutes as any other five-man lineup in the fourth quarter. They dominated, outscoring opponents by nearly 70 points over the course of the season with an off-the-charts 29.9 net rating.

Woodson hasn’t been able to find that sort of lineup this season. This year, the Knicks have had seven different combinations that have played at least 13 minutes in the fourth quarter. The most-used lineup has played 28 minutes, with two others playing 19 or more, and four others playing between 13 and 19. Of those seven most-used lineups, four have awful plus-minus ratings, with some being epically bad.

The Knicks’ two best fourth-quarter lineups have included Anthony, Felton and Iman Shumpert with Pablo Prigioni and Chandler or Smith and Andrea Bargnani. Those groups’ offensive numbers haven’t been very good but their defense has more than made up for the offensive deficiencies. It should be noted that both of those lineup groups feature Anthony at power forward with Shumpert and Felton in the backcourt. Shumpert’s ability to defend point guards allows the Knicks to hide Felton elsewhere.

With the team finally getting healthy, it’s time for Woodson to settle on a lineup in the fourth quarter and stick with it. To best recreate last season’s success, the best potential lineups should feature Anthony, Felton, Chandler, Shumpert and Prigioni or Smith. If Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire are playing particularly well, one of the two can be used for Chandler if the opposing team is particularly weak around the rim.

The Knicks won’t win consistently until they figure out their fourth-quarter woes. The return of Felton and Chandler should help things, too.

But the real pressure is on Woodson.

If the Knicks can get it going, they might be able to manage a second-round playoff appearance once again.

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

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