The New York Knicks have two days off, today and tomorrow, days in which they will have the opportunity to practice together as a (mostly) full team for the first time. It’s a bit shocking how little time Mike D’Antoni has had with his players, thanks to this crazy schedule; remember, J.R. Smith pretty much just ran out on the Garden court straight from a flight from China. If Josh Harrellson is able to return this week — and he might be — the Knicks won’t have a single player on the injured list for the first time all year. (Though Iman Shumpert and Bill Walker are nursing a sore knee and elbow, respectively.) The Knicks are at last a full team. So, now that they’ve found love, what they gonna do … with it?
Some have argued that if the Knicks can gel and stay healthy, they have enough talent to legitimately challenge some of the top championship contenders. With the Knicks playing only one game (Wednesday at home against Cleveland) over the next six days, it’s time to take a look at the five keys for the second half. Let us, shall we?
1. Amar’e Stoudemire’s second wind. Suffice it to say, Amar’e hasn’t exactly looked like the explosive dynamo of yesteryear; Jeremy Lin has looked far more like Steve Nash than Amar’e Stoudemire has looked like Amar’e Stoudemire. The curious (and alternately worrisome and encouraging) part of this is that Stoudemire has flashes of the old Amar’e, when he’ll attack the basket with zest and fury, before settling back into the heavy-legged defensive zero he’s been much of this year. Maybe Amar’e came into camp out of shape; maybe he’s had trouble integrating into the offense both pre- and post-Lin; maybe he’s just done. (The latter is most concerning; the Knicks will be paying him $23 million in 2015.) Stoudemire has become his team’s fourth or fifth offensive option, which is crazy considering how often the Knicks run the pick-and-roll, Amar’e’s signature play. If the Knicks are going to take the next step forward, they need some semblance of the old Amar’e.
2. What’s the rotation gonna look like? Thanks to everyone getting healthy and the signing of J.R. Smith, the Knicks suddenly have a lot of depth. They currently have 13 players who have seen legitimate rotation minutes this year (pretty much everybody on the roster except Mike Bibby and Jerome Jordan) so there just aren’t enough minutes to go around. Toney Douglas figures to remain at the end of the bench, but otherwise, how do you get time for Steve Novak, for Bill Walker, for Josh Harrellson, three players who have been invaluable but look to be squeezed with everyone returning and healthy? Your starters are Lin/Fields/Carmelo/Amar’e/Chandler. Who emerges from the second unit? Is it Davis/Shumpert/Smith/Novak/Jeffries? And will any of those guys — namely, Smith — emerge as the crunch-time player? This is by far the deepest roster Mike D’Antoni has had as coach. It’ll be fascinating to see how he works it.
3. What’s the natural level for Lin? We’ve unreservedly given ourselves over to Linsanity, but asking him to keep dropping stat lines of 28 points, 14 assists every night is a bit much. (A lot bit much.) But don’t expect him to have many more ugly nights like he did against Miami either. (It’s not often he’ll be double teamed all night by the best defensive team in the league.) If Lin averages 15 points, seven assists the rest of the way, that’s pretty terrific, right? More to the point, at the midway mark, this is unquestionably Lin’s team; without him in the game, the offense stagnates. (Though as Baron Davis gets healthier, one hopes that won’t remain the case.) Lin has already played more minutes than he has in his life. Can he survive the grind of the second half? Of the playoffs? If defenses continue to focus on him, can he keep the offense moving and always hit the open man? Most of all: Can he keep providing the energy that obviously fuels the rest of the team, and the Garden? We’ll just say that we hope he’s getting plenty of sleep this week.
4. Is Carmelo ready to be Paul Pierce? We keep coming back to the argument made by SI’s Ian Thomson: If Carmelo can figure out his place in this offense, and step up his defensive intensity, he can shift into the next phase of his career, becoming an all-around player (and potential champion) rather than just an isolation gunner. (Like Paul Pierce did in Boston.) Carmelo is 28 years old now, and if he’s going to become the legend he has always thought himself to be, he needs to start taking over games and leading his team to the next level. Only once in Carmelo’s career has his team made it out of the first round of the playoffs. If he’s going to be an all-timer, that needs to end immediately. He’s the most talented Knick by a large measure, but if this team can’t put something together this year, he’ll be the one who takes the blame.
5. Can they get out of that No. 7 seed? The top goal of any Eastern Conference playoff contender is to avoid the Bulls and the Heat as long as possible. Right now, the Knicks are the No. 7 seed; they need to avoid that spot, desperately. They have 31 games to make up 3 1/2 games on Atlanta or Philadelphia, or five games on Orlando or Indiana. They also have to make sure the Celtics don’t catch them from behind. The target team has to be Philadelphia: They’ll play the 76ers twice the rest of the way, and only need to win one of those to have the tiebreaker. (They beat Philly on January 11.) Catching up with Philly would give the Knicks the Atlantic Division championship (their first since 1994) and, even more important, guaranteed home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Whatever happens in the playoffs, that’s unpredictable and crazy; all you can do is hope to be in the right spot when you get there. The best way to do that is catch up with the 76ers over these last 31 games. That’s the initial goal. That’s what the Knicks need to do in the second half. Let’s see how it works out.