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So, the Playoffs Are Finally Here, Folks

Let's flash back to the very beginning of this season, the night of the Knicks' first game: "We might not know where we're all headed, but we know that, no matter what, it can't be worse than what we've been through." No one had any idea how many crazy turns the season would take back then, but now it's just two days until the Knicks try to win their first playoff game in a decade — a DECADE! — and it's still hard to believe the Knicks are actually in the playoffs.

From the get-go, the playoffs were the primary goal for Amar'e Stoudemire and coach Mike D'Antoni: After the Isiah years, getting there would feel like enough. But then came the winning streaks, the Paul Pierce "the Knicks are back!" comments, and, of course, the Carmelo Anthony trade. Somewhere it all got a little shifted: The Knicks' success would now be judged on what they did in the playoffs, not that they made them at all.

We don't accept this thesis: Getting here was the first step. Has everyone forgotten the last ten years of Knicks basketball? We have not. We remember watching all those wretched teams, holding out hope — at one point buying a Frank Williams jersey — and worrying that the franchise was doomed, that the Knicks would never matter again, that Isiah was going to light the Garden on fire. The Anuche Browne Sanders lawsuit, the great "I don't even know what he's doing" video, the Larry Brown fiasco ... it was so, so horrible.

Now the Knicks are in the playoffs! With two superstars! What happens in the playoffs? We'll worry about that next year. (If there is a next year.)

That's not to say the Knicks don't have a puncher's chance against the Celtics. Boston is wobbly, cranky after the Kendrick Perkins trade and, all told, rather elderly. One wonders how the Knicks 1.0 version would have played — young, energetic gunners going crazy against an older team that is running out of steam. You can see how they might have worn the Celtics out. Shelden Williams is probably not wearing anybody out.

But still: If the Knicks can keep these games close — and these are the playoffs; close games happen every night — they have the most proven clutch scorer in the NBA, including Kobe, to give the ball to, a guy who has never missed the playoffs in his career. Carmelo Anthony is the takeaway from this season, and for the next fortnight, we'll get a sense of just what he, and this team, is capable of.

The Knicks aren't favored to win this series. They probably won't. But they can make the Celtics sweat and fire up that old Garden playoff madness three times, send everyone into the off-season flying high rather than wondering what needs to be fixed. Perhaps the headline on a loss to the Celtics earlier this season is illustrative: "The Knicks Lose, But Of Course Win." Getting back to the Garden for a Game 6 is a worthwhile goal. That would be terrific.

And who knows? If the Knicks can sneak out one of the two games in Boston, one on Sunday and one on Tuesday ... that playoff opener next Friday will be as crazed as the Garden has been since the Ewing days. That's the fun of being in the playoffs: All it takes is one hot night to change everything. The Knicks almost certainly won't make it to the Eastern Conference Finals this year. But they might. Being in the playoffs means they might. We absolutely cannot wait.

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Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images