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The Time is Now For These Knickerbockers

Flickr|| MattBrit00

Knicks Where They Need to Be Entering the Stretch Run

The Knicks got off to their best start in nearly two decades, but fell back to Earth in recent weeks and headed into the All-Star break losers of three of their last four, and with seemingly more questions than answers.

Over the last 25 games, Mike Woodson’s Knicks have looked old and uninterested, especially on the defensive end.  However, there is no questioning that the Knicks are exactly where they need to be and in a position that would have thrilled any fan if told prior to the season.

The Knicks have so far exceeded all expectations and are currently an Atlantic Division leading 32-18, which includes a six-game winning streak to open the season, and not to mention a slew of injuries.

As the Knicks approach game number 51 they have yet to be whole, and they won’t be for the foreseeable future. It’s quite possible that up to now we have only gotten glimpses and previews of how good this team can really be.

They got off to their blistering start without the services of Amare Stoudemire or Iman Shumpert, and along the way Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, and Carmelo Anthony have all been dinged up as well.

The team is still missing warhorses Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby. But, both veteran big men returned to practice on Tuesday, marking the first time all season that all of Woodson’s 15 men suited up in unison.

Despite the multitude of injures, Woody’s veteran laden group went on to have the best first-half that the franchise has seen during the 21st Century. It’s the first time the Knicks have posted at least 30 wins before the break since the 1996-97 season. To put things into perspective, they never won more than 33 contests in an entire season from 2004-05 through 2009-10.

Heading into the break the Knicks didn’t finish the way they would have liked, but they have the whole second half of the season to round bounce back into form. They are just 14-13 since an 18-5 start, but don’t tell them that they’re not serious contenders.

"Without a doubt," Carmelo said after his team limped into the All-Star break. "Our confidence isn't going nowhere. We're still competing for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Still top of our division. Right now we're second in the East. We've just got to regroup as a team and after the break be ready to rock."

The Knicks know that the real season starts now, but the road ahead isn’t a glamorous one. The final 32 games will consist of 18 on the road, nine back-to-backs, and 19 games against teams over .500. The month of March will be a brutal one for the oldest team assembled in league history with 19 games, six back-to-backs, and a five-game road trip out West.

 “March is going to be a tough schedule for us,” Woodson said. “And guys have got to really lock in get their proper rest and be ready to play.”

Now the fun really begins, as this is shaping up to be the most important few months and postseason for the Knicks in over a decade. Coming off a surprise trip to the NBA finals, Jeff Van Gundy led the Knickerbockers to a 50-32 record during the 1999-2000 campaign.

He helped guide the group to Game Six of the Conference Finals, where they lost to the Indiana Pacers. In the interim the Knicks became the laughing stock of the league, and are only now finally regaining respectability.

That '99-'00 season was Patrick Ewing’s last in the Big Apple, and the last time the Knicks won at least 50 games. In the twelve seasons since the franchise has made only four cameo playoff appearances, being eliminated in the first round each time — including the last two years.

The Knicks did however finally snap their NBA-record 13-game postseason losing streak with their first playoff win since 2001 last year in Game 4 against the eventual champion Heat, but they were still bounced in five quick games, leaving their playoff record at an ugly 3-15 since Ewing was shipped out to Seattle.

Those dark days though seem to be in the rearview mirror for the franchise. Carmelo has this group in position to possibly catch Miami atop the Eastern Conference, but with a second seed more realistic, and almost a necessity; as a top two seed would ensure that the Knicks would avoid Miami until the Conference Finals.

But, before thinking about the Conference Finals, the Knicks have to hold off the Nets for the Atlantic and earn home-court advantage for the first time since their opening round loss to the Raptors in 2001--which has been first on their to-do list since day one.

It’s been eighteen years since the last time the Knicks won a division title and these 32 games become about jostling for position in the standings. After a buzzer-beating victory Tuesday night over the Bucks, the Nets sit just two games back in the division and the Celtics are also still lurking at 5 and 1/2 back.

The Knicks enter the second half four games behind the Heat for first place in the Conference, but also just a game and a half in front of the Pacers, who they take on Wednesday night in their first game back in action since the break.

These few days off could have been exactly what the doctor ordered for this aging bunch and the hope is that they can regain the commitment to defense, ball movement, and continuity they displayed during the months of November and December.

If that happens, this Knick team can be something special and be looking at a long-awaited deep run into the summer. Knick fans have to feel good about their team’s chances, as they are exactly where they need to be. It’s now just a matter of staying the course and getting healthy.