Early on in this NBA season, it seemed as though the New York Knicks had a firm grasp on the Atlantic Division title, seeming then to be clearly the best team in a talented division. However, as father time slowly wreaked havoc on the aging Knicks roster, the rest of the division played catch-up and it now looks to be a three team race to the finish. In this Atlantic Divison round-up, I’ll look at the Knicks, Nets, and Celtics chances at coming out on top.
|These two don’t hug often…something about Honey-Nut Cheerios if I recall|
New York Knicks:
What a whirlwind of a season this has been for the Knicks, from the 8-1 start, to the late December/Early January slide, to the January 24th triumph over the Celtics in Boston, to what is now a 4 game losing streak. This team has simply been all over the map, failing to find the consistency night in and night out that is generally required of a division champ. For starters, I think we all kind of saw this coming due in part to the fact that there top 3 scorers in Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, and Raymond Felton are high volume, low efficiency shooters (all shoot under 44%) and because of the age/health concerns of many of the main contributors for this team. First it was the loss of Rasheed Wallace for the season due to a foot injury. While Sheed may have been shooting the ball poorly, his ability to defend at a high level and stretch the floor as a big man on the second unit fit in perfectly with what the Knicks were trying to do. When he got hurt, there seemed to be an immediate drop off in the way the team played for me. They lost an edge. This injury was coupled with the fact that fellow big man Marcus Camby was also dealing with injuries of his own, leaving the Knicks short handed up front. Then they got some good news with Amare returning and not only playing well, but accepting his role as a 6th man. The team once against seemed to hit a stride in mid January looking good for a few weeks going 9-3 over that stretch. More recently however we have seen knee injuries to Amare, Carmelo and Tyson Chandler (also a neck strain) all derail the Knicks success.
While anyone watching the Knicks will say that when they are healthy they are a dangerous team, that “when” is now a big “if”. Amare is done for the regular season after getting his knee scoped yet he should return sometime early in the playoffs. It looks as though Chandler’s injury is pretty mild as he originally had a knee contusion and now is listed as having a strained muscle in his neck, so I would expect him back within a couple games. The biggest question mark for Knicks fans is their golden boy: Carmelo Anthony. He is leaned on to do so much offensively that the team looks lost without him and have been having to rely on the unreliable JR Smith for offense. Smith has shot the ball over 18 times a game in March to a woeful tune of 38.7%.
So, the Knicks have 18 games remaining, 9 at home and 9 away from MSG. They face the Celtics, Raptors, and Hawks twice. They also face Western conference powerhouses in the Thunder (away) and Grizzlies (home) as well as playoff caliber teams in the Pacers, Bulls, Jazz, and Bucks. Oh yeah and they face Miami in Miami April 2nd. In evaluating their schedule, the best I see them doing is 10-8, but more realistically 9-9 or 8-10. IF however they are still struggling through injuries over the next couple weeks, that number could easily drop to something like 6-12. With a current record of 38-26 and giving them a fair split 9-9 in their last 18, they would finish with a record of 47-35.
Currently sitting at 38-28, they are just 1 game behind the Knicks (2 in the loss column). While the Nets have not had the injury concerns of that Knicks, they have had their own fair share of drama. With the in-season firing of coach Avery Johnson and the promotion of assistant PJ Carlesimo to head coach, the change in leadership was certainly a spark to this team. They won 9 of 10 and 13 of 15 to start the new regime under Carlesimo. The team has cooled off recently, splitting 8 games in March, but showed us all with their winning ways of January, that they can be elite for stretches. While franchise player Deron Williams struggled mightily early in the season with his shot, he has shot 47% overall and 46% from downtown since the All-Star game. Brook Lopez continues to play well leading the team in scoring at nearly 19 a game on 52% shooting. The inconsistencies of the rest of the team have been frustrating and has led to the coach continuing to try and find the right rotation of players. 12 million dollar a year man Kris Humphries-Kardashian has been in and out of the lineup and now looks to be back in. The best thing Humphries has done all year was this Foot Locker commercial:
Anyways, with 16 games remaining for the Nets with a whopping 11 of those 16 on the road, they face an uphill battle to pass the Knicks. The Nets start an 8 game road trip tonight and they must be cursing the NBA schedule makers because a fucking 8 game road trip to end March/start April is about as rough as it gets. Thankfully only 3 of the teams they are facing are above .500 (Clippers, Nuggets, and Jazz) but don’t discount how good Dallas and Portland can play. In another 3 game road trip in mid-April they face Boston, Indiana, and the new look Raptors. A big edge for the Nets is that in there 5 home games they only face one team, in the Bulls, who are above .500. I’m going to go ahead and predict a 9-7 finish for the Nets, placing them in a tie with New York in my above predictions at 47-35. Seriously, this is not for drama, this is really what it looks like when I break down their remaining games. If they can win at both Dallas and Portland though, I think they have a good shot at taking home the division.
|The Celtics want to get in a fight|
The Celtics currently sit at 36-29, 2.5 games back of the Knicks and have shown incredible pride in playing competitively despite season ending injuries to Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger, and Leandro Barbosa. The team relies on ball movement offensively, but is certainly a defensive minded unit. They want to “ugly-up” a game and make it come down to a few last possessions for each team in which they feel they can out-execute any opponent.With 17 games remaining that include 8 at home and 9 on the road, the team has its work cut out for them to make up ground. They face Miami twice, including tonight’s tilt when the Heat try to win their 23rd straight. They also face the Knicks and Cavs twice. Other games include Memphis on the road as well as Brooklyn, Indiana, and Atlanta at home. They do face some of the NBAs worst too in Washington, Minnesota, Orlando, Detroit, New Orleans and of course the aforementioned two games against Cleveland. A realistic outlook at the Celtics, puts them at 11-6 (losses to Miami twice, Indiana, Memphis, Dallas, and Knicks) record the rest of the way, for a, you guessed it, 47-35 record. Honest to god, I did these projections and then looked down to find that all teams projected to the same record. I could easily see the C’s slipping up against Detroit or Toronto, but those games are at home, and the team has played exceptionally well in the Garden since Rondo went down as they are 11-0 in that stretch (that will likely change tonight when Miami Visits).
What it all means?
So have I copped out by placing all the teams with identical records? I guess, but its just coincidental. What it really comes down to is who wins the games against each other. Boston will have two chances to play the Knicks. Win both and you will likely surge ahead of the Knicks. Brooklyn faces both teams and can make up a lot of ground by winning those and splitting their road games. The Knicks need to maintain while their stars get healthy. This division is a total toss up and every game matters, who do you think takes home the division crown?