The second quarter of last night’s Knicks 116–110 loss to the Magic is the theoretical ideal construct of how the Knicks, as currently constructed, can look. They outscored the Magic — still a serious title contender — 37–15, with Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Chauncey Billups looking not only like they were three of the best players in the NBA, but also that they’d been playing together for a decade rather than a week.
The Knicks weren’t able to hang on, if just because Dwight Howard is a monster and eventually wore down Stoudemire, Ronny Turiaf, poor toasted Shelden Williams, whoever Mike D’Antoni threw at him. Having a Dwight Howard is nice. The Knicks would love one someday. The defense still needs lots of work: For whatever reason, Stoudemire appears to have gotten worse on D since the reinforcements arrived. But there are so many flashes of brilliance, an entirely different kind of brilliance than the Knicks have shown before, that watching this team figure itself out over the next couple of months is going to be rollicking good fun. Even in the losses.
Since the trade for Anthony and Billups, the Knicks are 2–2, which is about what you would have expected, even though you’d likely flip-flop the Cavs and Heat losses. Also: They have only 24 games left before the playoffs, which they currently have a 96 percent chance of making. That almost doesn’t seem like enough time for this particular permutation of Knicks to pull it together. Especially since the Knicks are in a race right now: The 76ers are back to .500 after a loss to Dallas last night, just one game behind the Knicks for the No. 6 seed. That’s the difference between playing Chicago in the first round of the playoffs, and playing Miami. (To be fair, the Knicks have beaten both teams twice this year.) The difference between No. 6 and No. 7 is not life and death, but it is something to shoot for, something to gauge one’s progress against. The Knicks need to get better and become more cohesive, but they also need to win. They have 24 games to take care of all of it.