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Two nights, two Knicks, and several Eastern crosscurrents

The past two nights in the NBA have shown a new side of the New York Knicks. They’ve shown a familiar side of the upper half of the Eastern Conference.

If you wanted clarity and separation in the East, you have been sorely disappointed, but if you wanted to see the Knicks announce their presence in a bold manner, you have been rewarded for your patience with this team and Derek Fisher.

*

It might not be a new day in New York, but it feels like one. Three straight times, the Knicks have beaten teams which stand in front of them in the East. One of those teams, the Atlanta Hawks, was a double-victim, but after the Knicks polished off Atlanta in Madison Square Garden on Sunday, it seemed likely that the Hawks would gain revenge on Tuesday night in Philips Arena.

That’s when the new Knicks and the old East appeared.

Last season’s only non-Golden State team to hit the 60-win plateau was not supposed to be as good this season in the absence of DeMarre Carroll. Viewed through that lens, the Hawks have not confounded expectations this season. Yet, the relentlessly ordinary quality of the East continues to invite non-Cleveland teams to grab the No. 2 spot… and teams continue to refuse to take the offer. Atlanta’s inability to meet the challenge in Tuesday’s return game against the Knicks offers convincing proof of the “No, I insist — after YOU!” dynamic which has defined the East season to this point. The Hawks endured two losses to the same opponent in three nights, lending more credence to the notion that a supreme challenger to Cleveland simply won’t materialize.

Yet, if you’re going to knock Atlanta for failing to bounce back on Tuesday, the other team had more than a little to do with that result. The Derek Fisher Knicks, hardly what one would call a model of laser-guided focus over the past one and a half seasons, have (at least temporarily) found a copious quantity of tunnel vision. Self-assured and calmly confident, the Knicks are beginning to impress their coach… whose understanding of the psychology of basketball is finely honed.

If you thought that the Knicks’ win over Atlanta — powered by 23 points from Arron Afflalo, 17 and 11 from Kristaps Porzingis, and a selfless, workmanlike line of 23-11-7 from Carmelo Anthony — marked the high point of the week for New York, you were wrong. Thrust into the second half of a back-to-back roadie on Wednesday in Miami — against an opponent which had beaten them eight straight times — the Knicks were supposed to fall short, affected by the dead legs which begin to become more prevalent in this final month before the All-Star break. Yet, instead of succumbing to logistics, travel, and a persistently thorny foe, the Knicks squeezed the life out of the Heat in an efficient eight-point victory.

Melo was a crisp 9-of-12 from the field, and 7-of-8 at the foul line. The Knicks didn’t take many bad shots, and as a result, they hit 56 percent of their attempts. They grabbed only five offensive boards… but they didn’t need to chase down all that many misses in the first place. On defense, New York limited the non-Chris Bosh members of the Heat to a 25-of-60 shooting line, 2-of-17 from three-point range. No Miami player attempted more than four free throws, a testament to the Knicks’ ability to defend without fouling.

A responsible and vigilant defense, on the back end of an all-road back-to-back, against a nemesis, all while limiting Luol Deng and Goran Dragic to a combined total of just 19 points? That’s a new and improved version of the Knicks. Fisher has taken notice.

“We were intense, but there was a relaxed look, as if we were in control of what we wanted to do,” Fisher said. “It takes a while to develop that, and it’s hard to keep that.”

To a certain extent on Tuesday in Atlanta, and to a much fuller extent on Wednesday in Miami, the Knicks have indeed kept this newfound edge. As a result, they are only one game under the .500 mark. With Charlotte tumbling out of the East playoff picture and both Orlando and Boston struggling, the thought owns more credibility (and more of a basis in evidence) than ever before: The Knicks just might make the playoffs.

That notion didn’t seem very realistic even a week ago, let alone a month ago. It might not come to pass, but it’s a much more legitimate possibility. This version of the Knicks can go places.

*

While New York soared, we’re left to realize that Atlanta’s two losses to the Knicks and yet another puzzling home-court loss for Miami leave the Hawks and Heat in very precarious positions a month before the break.

Atlanta’s point guard rotation has been clouded by the recent (albeit temporary) benching of Dennis Schroder, a move intended to serve as a wakeup call on the part of coach Mike Budenholzer. The Hawks might work through this period of difficulty and find a ray of hope on the other side, but right now, it’s hard for them to envision a future in which they’re as integrated as they need to be. Having been whacked by the Knicks on Sunday, one should have expected Atlanta to come out invigorated on Tuesday, but the relatively tepid response to the situation shows that the pilot light is barely flickering, if that, in Georgia.

As for the Heat, the twin tendencies to lose home games:

A) to an opponent with a worse place in the East standings;

and

B) on the heels of a victory or two…

… have not gone away.

The Heat still haven’t won four games in a row this season. That’s not necessarily an unpardonable sin, but if you look at a few of the snapped three-game winning streaks, the opponents in game four (at home) have not been all that imposing. The Heat’s home-heavy schedule over the first 35 games of the slate has demanded a better mark than 21-14. With 14 of the next 16 on the road, the Heat face the most defining portion of their season. When they emerge from the All-Star break, they could remain afloat… or in third place in the Southeast Division, ninth in the East.

At that point in time, the Knicks could be eighth, if they keep playing the way they have.

What a strange trip the Eastern Conference continues to be this season. It’s a trip the New York Knicks are now enjoying a lot more than before.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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