Last night, the Knicks beat the Atlanta Hawks 92–85 in front of a decidedly pro-Knicks crowd in Atlanta. (Seriously, the Hawks’ arena might be half full for the first round of the playoffs, which could be against Brooklyn.) It was the Knicks’ tenth consecutive win, their longest win streak in nearly twenty years, and raised their record to 48-26, just two wins away from their first 50-win season since 1999–2000. It’s been something to see, and it’s given us a clearer picture of just who these Knicks are right now and where they’re going.
So, let’s just make a list. (This is the Internet.) Here are the ten things we know about the Knicks in the wake of their streak.
1. They’re going to win the Atlantic Division for the first time since the 1993–94 season. Seriously, the Miami Heat have won the Atlantic Division since the Knicks have, and they left the division nearly ten years ago. The magic number to clinch the title is four — a combination of Knicks wins and Nets losses — with eight games left for both teams. (John Hollinger’s system gives the Knicks a 99.1 percent chance.) There’s going to be another banner raised at the Garden next year. The question now is whether the Knicks can raise more than one.
2. Carmelo is looking like Olympic Carmelo. You may remember Olympic Carmelo, the one who used the attention paid to his all-world teammates to shoot the lights out, the one who scored 37 points in the blink of an eye against Nigeria. He’s been that Carmelo the last two nights, in tough road wins against playoff teams, scoring a total of 90 points, a career high for a two-game stretch. Carmelo has never been the MVP contender Knicks fans have wanted him to be all season, but he sure has looked it the last two evenings. Maybe he’s peaking too early, but if he’s like this in the playoffs, the Knicks can beat anybody.
3. J.R. Smith is finally showing he could be a superstar. The Eastern Conference player of the week slowed a bit last night, but this new driving-to-the-rim J.R. could take the Knicks to higher levels than anyone could have hoped. As Grantland’s Zach Lowe put it, it’s possible the Knicks “completed some sort of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind–style alteration of Smith’s brain.” An aggressive but controlled J.R. Smith is one of the top offensive forces in the NBA. We’ve seen that during this streak.
4. Maybe Amar’e wasn’t that important after all? The worst part about Amar’e’s knee injury is that it happened right when he was putting everything together on the offensive end. He was starting to get his hops back. It’s possible he still makes it back for a playoff series, but the way things are going now, why push it? His defensive woes haven’t been missed at all, and Smith is giving them all the bench scoring they could hope for. We want Amar’e to get healthy and get back, but the Knicks certainly aren’t missing him right now.
5. Kenyon Martin is a damned lifesaver. He banged up his knee a little bit last night, so we say this cautiously, but the emergence of Martin as a fully formed defensive enforcer/bringer of medieval pain has been exactly what the Knicks had needed ever since Rasheed Wallace went down (and it became clear that Marcus Camby wasn’t going to cut it). It’s vintage Martin, a scary presence for anyone daring to drive the lane. He’s even shown a nice scoring touch. You can make an argument that Martin has been the team’s second or third most important player during the streak, and that’s just amazing.
6. The guards are stepping up. Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton are healthy and confident — except for Kidd with his shot, weirdly — but there’s nothing unusual about that; it’s just nice to see. But the step forward taken by Pablo Prigioni during this streak has been thrilling to watch. His defense has been awfully spritely for a 35-year-old man, and he’s finally taking some of those wide-open three-pointers other teams keep giving him. (And hitting them.) Even Iman Shumpert is hitting some threes. The Knicks have essentially gone ten deep, or more, during this win streak, and the depth has made a major difference.
7. Good vibes are coming this Friday. After the two-game road swing, the Knicks return home Friday to play the Milwaukee Bucks. The Knicks will be honoring the *40th anniversary of the 1972–73 championship team that night, the last Knicks’ team to win a championship. For a team that still harbors such ambitions, it’ll be a fun evening to be a part of.
8. The Indiana game at the Garden on April 14 will be huge. The Knicks and Pacers are still battling for that No. 2 seed in the playoffs and homecourt advantage for that second-round series. This morning, the Knicks are a half-game up, with the Knicks having eight games left to play and the Pacers seven. The Pacers lead the season series 2-1, so a win in that game would secure them the tiebreaker. But if the Knicks win, they’ll likely get the tiebreaker because of their better conference record. This late in the season, it’s tough to find big, important regular season games. That game will certainly be one.
9. The first-round series is gonna be tough no matter what. There’s only one lousy playoff team in the Eastern Conference, and the No. 1–seeded Heat earn the ability to slap around the Bucks in the first round. After that, anything goes. The Knicks’ first-round opponent could be any one of a number of teams. Here are the standings as of this moment:
1. Miami 58-16
2. New York 48-26
3. Indiana 48-27
4. Brooklyn 43-31
5. Atlanta 42-34
6. Chicago 40-33
7. Boston 39-36
8. Milwaukee 36-38
If the Knicks end up with that No. 2 seed, the odds are excellent that they will face the Boston Celtics, which strikes us as more perilous a first-round series than you’d prefer with a No. 2 seed. But if they fall to No. 3, they’re looking at probably Chicago, a proud defensive team that always gives the Knicks trouble. It’s also possible Brooklyn (who plays Chicago tonight at Barclays) or Atlanta could fall there; the Hawks look like the weakest team of that whole lot at this point. The takeaway: It’s not gonna be easy to get out of the first round.
10. The streak’s probably going to end Sunday. The Knicks travel to play the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that’s fighting for the No. 1 overall seed in the Western Conference. They are highly motivated and highly skilled. Ideally, the Knicks would win enough games in the next week to give Carmelo and Kenyon and Tyson Chandler and the crew a few days off before the playoffs. But it doesn’t always work out that way. No matter what, the Knicks’ streak has given them a ton of momentum heading into the postseason and calmed the Knicks fans who, understandably, are always waiting for everything to fall apart. There’s a ton of good cheer with the Knicks right now. Ten-game win streaks will do that.
* Originally this post said it has been 30 years since 1973. It hasn’t. It has been 40. You’re so old.