New York Knicks fans are celebrating their most successful season since the 2003-04 NBA season to be precise. The whole city has fallen in love with all-star forward-center Amar’e Stoudemire, who has enjoyed “MVP” chants for the majority of the season.
New Yorkers are ecstatic, often being quoted as saying things in the realm of, “The Knicks are back, Amar’e has brought them back, they are back in the playoffs!”
That is where I would like to stop these 7-year playoff deprived fans. Is the Knicks trip to the 2010-11 NBA playoffs a sure thing? Believe me, if I had to make a bet, I would certainly bet on the Knicks making the playoffs.
However, I have the feeling that the remainder of this season will make a lot of Knicks fans uncomfortable, as the battle for a playoff spot heats up.
The Knicks in the month of February have lost four of their first seven games. Before playing the Nets they were at the .500 mark for the first time since November. For most Knicks fans this was frustrating, however, it was not taken as a scare. I am not saying that Knicks fans should panic, but it was a worse sign than most fans made it to be.
It is not that the Knicks play will force them to lose every game after the All-Star break and fall out of the playoff race, it is that their struggles have had a seesaw effect on other teams in the playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference.
Let’s start off with the Knicks closest opponent in the standings, the local Atlantic division, Philadelphia 76ers.
The 76ers are placed a small two games behind the Knicks in the standings. More importantly, the Sixers are 10-4 in their last 14 games. It is easy to say that they are playing better than they have all season long.
Elton Brand is starting to look comfortable in a 76ers jersey for the first time in the two and a half years he has been on the team. Brand is having, by far, his best year as a Sixer and his play has only been improving throughout the year, and especially over the last 14 games.
The biggest story over this 14 game span has to be the improved play of Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young. Over the 14 games the two have combined for a total of 15 games scoring 15 points or more, including seven games scoring 20 or more points. The most interesting part of this, they have only combined for two games receiving 30 minutes or more. These two are scoring with efficiency and are making this team roll.
Because of them, we have seen Andre Iguodala force much less and trust his teammates much more, which has resulted in him scoring with efficiency and his teammates carrying more of the scoring load which allows him to focus on other aspects of the game.
Look for Doug Collins’ rapidly improving Philadelphia 76ers to continue to make noise down the stretch and make the fight for the playoffs difficult for these remaining two and a half months.
Similar to the red hot Philadelphia squad, the Indiana Pacers have seen a lot of success recently.
On January 30th the Pacers fired their head coach, Larry O’Brien. The Pacers were looking very bad and seemed to be falling out of playoff contention before releasing O’Brien. The Pacers interim head coach Frank Vogel saved their season, to say the least.
The Pacers are an impressive seven and three under Vogel, two of their losses came to the first place Miami Heat team in single-digit losses and the other loss came in overtime to the Detroit Pistons.
A very large improvement for the Pacers since January 30th has been the confidence boost that Vogel has given to Roy Hibbert. Hibbert is averaging nine minutes more in February than he did in the month of January, and is averaging eight more points per-game than he did in January. The presence that he provides in the paint is not matched by any other player on the team along with his ability to score in the post. His added playing time has been a huge boost for the team.
With Hibbert’s presence in the paint on both ends, the team is regaining the flow that they had to start the season when Hibbert was receiving adequate minutes.
Along with the progression of Hibbert, Pacers management has been vocal about shopping their expiring contracts in hopes of receiving another threat to put on the floor, I imagine they are looking for an upgrade at power forward (look for Jamison to Pacers talk leading up to the deadline).
With the improvements under Vogel look for the Pacers to make a run at the sixth seed and make it hard for teams to make the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The last team I am going to mention is the Milwaukee Bucks. Yes, the 21-34 Milwaukee Bucks (get the laughs out).
The struggling Milwaukee Bucks have the potential to make a serious playoff run, I will explain why.
The Bucks have recently gotten back their best player, second year point guard, Brandon Jennings. Brandon is the team’s best playmaker, scorer, shooter and passer. Jennings has recently received his usual starter minutes and the All-Star break will give him the perfect opportunity to fully recover from his injured foot. After the break, expect to see the healthy and skilled Brandon Jennings return to his pre-injury form and help the Bucks make a push for the playoffs.
Secondly, (hold back the laughs) Michael Redd is scheduled to return next week. He has yet to play this season and only played 18 games last season because he couldn’t stay healthy. If he can stay healthy (big if) he can prove to be a great backcourt mate for Brandon Jennings.
Last year, we saw Redd in the small sample size we had, score 32 points in a game, along with scoring 27 points while leading the Bucks to a win over the Thunder. He still has a great shooting stroke, he can still take over a game with his shooting. This year is also a contract year for Michael Redd, he has only half of a season to prove his worth so expect (sad thing about sports) him to play with more zeal than he has since his early years in the league. The former all-star could prove to be an important part in the Bucks playoff run.
Lastly, many people forget this, the Bucks were basically in the same position last year. They had 24 wins going into the all-star break without much hope of making the playoffs. After the all-star break, the Bucks went an impressive (to say the least) 21-9. This was good enough to capture the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Don’t overlook the poised Scott Skiles and his Milwaukee Bucks team.
I am by no means telling Knicks fans to panic, but hold your horses, because the bubble teams of the Eastern Conference will do as good of an impression of the Western Conference as possible.