The New York Knicks are fresh off defeating the Phoenix Suns 98-96 in overtime at Madison Square Garden to put their record at 15-22, which unsurprisingly, makes them the No.8 seed in the Eastern Conference. Yes, Carmelo Anthony selfishly brought the Knicks back from the dead with their current five-game winning streak. There he goes again — putting up big numbers during a winning streak. How dare he!
The Toronto Raptors currently hold the division lead at 19-17, with the Brooklyn Nets tied with the Knicks at 15-22. Seven games under .500, just 4.5 games out of first. Welcome to the Eastern Conference! Let’s not let that tarnish what the Knicks and Anthony are doing, though.
WHY THE KNICKS HAVE THE BEST CHANCE
First of all, they have the best player in the division in Anthony. Call him a ball hog or a ball stopper if you wish (you’d be mostly wrong), but you also have to call him a superstar. Even when his shot isn’t falling, Anthony does his part to help his team win. Last night was a perfect example, as he shot just 9-for-24, but he got to the free-throw line nine times (making eight), pulled down 16 rebounds and even dished out four assists.
Melo is more than his own statistics, as well. Simply having the threat of Melo on the floor offensively is enough to open up one side of the court for his teammates. One-on-one, Anthony might be the best offensive player in the league. Not only can he break his opponent down from the outside, but he can go into the post and dominate his opponent. Because of that, teams will shade to Anthony’s side. Surround him with players who can move the ball crisply around the perimeter and watch the corner 3′s fly (see: Steve Novak previously).
Although many give him the unfair label of “selfish”, Anthony averages 3.1 assists per game. You know who averages around that amount? Dirk Nowitzki (3.1), Tim Duncan (3.0), Pau Gasol (3.4) and Blake Griffin (3.3). Are any of those guys considered to be selfish? Is Melo called selfish simply because he does so much offensively that we expect him to pass more? That would come at the expense of his other production, so would we call him too passive then?
WHY IT’S NOT THE RAPTORS OR NETS
It’s pretty crazy that Rudy Gay would leave another team and they’d start to fare better, but that’s what’s happened in Toronto. Kyle Lowry is playing like he wants a new contract, DeMar DeRozan is (somewhat) living up to his and Jonas Valanciunas is showing more of the promise that made Toronto fans giddy to get him in a Raptors jersey.
The problem is — the Raptors just aren’t that good. They’ve got a fun team to watch (at times) and they can go off for big numbers, as they did scoring 116 last night against the Milwaukee Bucks. The problem is, they’re as good as they’re going to get. They’ve been fortunate with injuries and they’re (finally) buying into Dwane Casey’s defensive system. The Raptors, to their credit, have held seven of their last eight opponents under 100. Still, they are not a deep team and while the injury bug has crushed the Nets and Knicks, it hasn’t even touched the Raptors yet. It will and when it does, their dream is over.
The Nets have a lot of talent if we’re basing it off the past. It pains me to say it, but Kevin Garnett is finished. Deron Williams has been hurt more often than not as of late and only Joe Johnson has been able to carry the team offensively. If Paul Pierce came to mind there as carrying the team, please get your mind out of 2008.
With Brook Lopez healthy I would have called the Nets the favorite. Andray Blatche and Shaun Livingston are playing inspired ball, but again, who are we talking about here? These are bit players at best and they’re being depended on too heavily because of injuries and age. They might get healthier as a team, but they’re not getting younger and they don’t have a superstar to take things over the way the Knicks do.
IT WON’T BE LONG
The Atlantic Division was on it’s collective head for a while, with the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics at the top. Take another look and you’ll see they’ve descended to the basement. The Raptors will be overtaken by the Nets and Knicks (both of whom will make the playoffs). The Knicks will get Tyson Chandler back healthy soon and he’ll be yet another shot in the arm for a team that’s already catching fire. If they can get Amar’e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin to continue visiting the fountain of youth, they’ll find themselves in the second round without difficulty.
Michael Dunlap covers Arizona sports (Suns, Diamondbacks, Coyotes, Cardinals) at Big4Sports.com. He is an NBA credentialed writer who is also the Founder and Editor-in-Chief for the Sports Illustrated/Fansided NBA site HoopsHabit.com. He also covers high school sports for The Arizona Republic. Follow me on Twitter @DunlapNBA.