By John Schmeelk
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Now just one game behind the Hawks for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Knicks fans are starting to get giddy that their team might actually be playing into May. Not to be the guy that just pours cold water all over everyone’s hopes — well no, I am going to be that guy.
If the Knicks do end up making the playoffs it will have much more to do with a continuing Hawks collapse than anything the Knicks manage to do over the season’s final weeks.
Though the Hawks’ lead is only one game, it is really more like three. The Knicks have two games in hand against Atlanta, so their loss column lead over New York is two games. The Hawks also own the tiebreaker against the Knicks (and it is likely to stay that way), making the actual lead more like three games, with only eight games remaining for the Knicks and 10 for the Hawks. That means if the Knicks finish the season going 6-2, the Hawks would have to go 5-5 in their final 10. It seems very possible, but when you look at the team’s schedules it looks much less so.
Of the Knicks’ final eight games, all but one are against teams that are playoff-bound in the Eastern Conference. The only team that isn’t is Monday night’s opponent, the Utah Jazz, a second-half of a road back-to-back for the Knicks.
Of the other seven, one comes in Miami against the Heat, who will likely still be fighting for the No. 1 seed in the East. Two come against Brooklyn (one at the Garden and one at Barclays), who is still trying to win the Atlantic Division title and gain a first-round playoff series at home. The Knicks travel to Toronto once and host them once at the Garden. The Raptors are trying to hold off the Nets in the Atlantic and will likely be playing meaningful games throughout April.
The Bulls come to New York, and they play harder than any other team in the league no matter the circumstances. Finally, the Knicks play the Wizards, who are trying to stay out of the seventh seed and a potential first-round matchup against the Heat or Pacers.
It’s a very difficult schedule, and the Knicks couldn’t be expected to do much better than .500 during that stretch. The way they have played inconsistent basketball during the season, would 3-7 or even 2-6 surprise anyone? Lucky for the Knicks, they are competing with a team like the Hawks, who have been one of the worst teams in basketball over the last month.
Playing without Al Horford and a banged-up Kyle Korver, the Hawks are 6-20 in their last 26 games and show no signs of getting out of their funk. Unfortunately for the Knicks, Atlanta has some teams on their schedule that are even worse than they are. Atlanta gets to host the 76ers, a team that just tied an NBA record by losing 26 straight games. They also get to host Eastern Conference bottom feeders Detroit, Boston and Cleveland (who are only 1 1/2 games behind the Knicks). A trip to Milwaukee is also on the schedule. Those are all extremely winnable games. The other games on the schedule are at home against Chicago, Miami and Charlotte, and at Indiana and Brooklyn.
Worst case scenario for Atlanta, they are going to win three or four of those games. That means the Knicks will have to go at worst 5-3 or 4-4 in order to get into the playoffs. If the Hawks manage to go just .500 during that set of games, the Knicks would need to be 6-2 to close out the season. Of course, it could be possible that the Hawks have just put the stamp on the envelope and mailed it in. Everyone loves to get more ping-pong balls in the draft lottery this time of year. Sadly for the Knicks, that’s the type of collapse they are going to need to get into the postseason.
What will the Knicks get for their troubles even if they sneak in? Their prize is a first round thwacking at the hands of the Pacers or Heat. Both those teams have not played well over the past month, but barring Carmelo Anthony literally catching on fire in “NBA Jam” type fashion, they don’t have much of a chance to win. Not getting swept would be a victory, and getting a Game 6 at the Garden would be a colossal accomplishment. There isn’t much to be excited about.
After a 54-win season, Knicks fans have been reduced to hoping a Horford-less Hawks team has quit on the season so the Knicks can get embarrassed in the first round. You can just feel the playoff intensity emanating from Madison Square Garden.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and the world of sports.
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