The hottest team in the NBA faces off against the best team in the NBA in Miami tonight, yet this is just the beginning of critical three-week finish for the New York Knicks.
Owners of an eight-game winning streak, the longest in the NBA, the Knicks will take on the Miami Heat tonight, the team with the best record in the NBA. However, for the Knicks, this is just one of several key challenges in the final weeks of the regular season.
The Knicks are close to securing the Atlantic Division, and thus, second or third place in the Eastern Conference. However, fourth through seventh place in the East is still very much in the air, and in the coming weeks, the Knicks have the chance to prove themselves against possible playoff opponents. Here’s a breakdown of some of the critical games for the Knicks:
4/2 @ Miami – Tonight’s showdown with the Heat may actually be the most critical for the Knicks. Though neither team may be at full strength, this game could best symbolize how the Knicks would fare if the two teams meet in the playoffs. The Knicks ripped Miami apart in their first two meetings in November and December, but New York has only recently begun to resemble that team from the beginning of the season, and Miami was suffering slightly from a championship hangover. When the two teams played earlier in March in New York, the Knicks charged out to a big lead, only to have it dwindle away completely as the Heat won the game in the second half.
Miami is undoubtedly back to playing to their full capability, and it seems the Knicks have found their groove as a team not quite as good as what they showed early in the year, but better than their mid-winter malaise. However, the Knicks need this game to prove that those first ten quarters of dominance versus the Heat weren’t a fluke, and that they could really compete (and close games) in a series with Miami.
4/3 @ Atlanta – The Knicks have hardly seen the Atlanta Hawks this season, but they’ll run into them twice in the next three weeks. Their first and only meeting in January came down to the final minute, where Carmelo Anthony was able to put the Knicks ahead with an and-one drive. Back then, the Knicks were also adjusting to the additions of Amar’e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert who were both new to the rotation.
However, Atlanta still poses a threat to the Knicks. They have Jeff Teague, the type of speedy point guard that routinely gives the Knicks problems, and a quick, versatile frontcourt in Josh Smith and Al Horford that could give the Knicks troubles. If Atlanta lands in the sixth or seventh seed, the Knicks could see them. It’s the type of matchup where it’s safe to assume the better team (the Knicks, certainly) would win over seven games. Nonetheless, proving that they could win on the road in Atlanta would be a key indicator as to how the Knicks would fare in a series with the Hawks.
4/11 @ Chicago – The Bulls undoubtedly represent the scariest first-round opponent the Knicks could meet. The Bulls have provided huge problems for the Knicks this season, despite still missing their best player, Derrick Rose. The two teams squared off fairly evenly last season, but this year, the Knicks can’t seem to figure out how to beat the Bulls. In all three prior matchups, the Bulls have held double-digit leads, and on one occasion, managed to get three Knicks ejected, before New York, wildly, almost came back. The physicality of the Bulls and their tenacious defense seems to befuddle and irk the Knicks, and it’s not a problem that’s going away.
Perhaps the lone bright light in each of the three games is that New York was able to stage a comeback to cut the deficit to single digits. The Knicks need mental toughness and near-perfect execution to play these Bulls, but they can compete with them. Taking a game in Chicago could be a huge boost for the Knicks in proving that a series with the Bulls wouldn’t result in a first-round exit.
4/14 vs. Indiana – Revenge! Last time the Knicks played the Pacers, they were thoroughly embarrassed in Indianaas the Pacers had little mercy in showing the Knicks up. Chalk that one up to a post-All-Star break hangover. The Pacers, however, also took a game against the Knicks in December when New York was missing Carmelo Anthony after his little brush-up with Kevin Garnett. In November, the two teams faced off in New York, and the Knicks took that win pretty easily. So, months later, the Knicks owe the Pacers a beating of their own.
The Knicks and the Pacers have gone back and forth as the second best team in the East behind Miami, and besides the Bulls, are thought of as the only two teams that could challenge the Heat. However, it’s unlikely that either team gets to Miami in the playoffs without first knocking the other out. A series between these two could likely go to seven games, but the Knicks need this final matchup to show that they have any chance at advancing past the Pacers.