The return of friends and enemies thickens this week's plot.

Wednesday, February 29th -- VS Cleveland

Sunday, March 3rd -- @ Boston

At first glance, this week presents the ideal scenario to the Knicks: because they have only two games slated in the next five days, there is plenty of time to practice and get to know one another in a basketball sense. Coach Mike D'Antoni has already stated his intentions to do just that, forming a sort of "mini-camp" for the players to adjust to one another for the oft-referenced "second half push." This is undoubtedly perfect timing for such a stretch; with Josh Harrellson and Iman Shumpert returning to the lineup, Bill Walker will be the only remaining Knick unable to play (which isn't that big a deal, as the additions of J.R. Smith and Baron Davis, as well as Landry Fields's increased productivity will probably relegate Bully to the bench anyway).

Having said that, I cannot think of two games that would put the Knicks in more of a position to fail than the Cavaliers game tonight and the Celtics game on Sunday, and I'll tell you why.

Since taking over the helm of the New York Knicks, Mike D'Antoni has beaten the Cavaliers exactly once (oddly enough, it was last season and the win clinched a spot in the playoffs for the Knicks). Sure, you could point to LeBron James as the impetus for this woeful detail, and you wouldn't be entirely wrong. However, the Knicks have already lost to the statistically and visually inferior Cavaliers once this season, and last season's tilts against the Cavs should have been some of the easiest games in Knicks history. Yet somehow, they've only managed to win once in the past four years, and this sort of pattern creates nothing but pressure. If you recall almost exactly one month ago, you may remember the Clippers beating the Jazz in Salt Lake City. To quote Skynet's ESPN's recap of the game:

The win ended a string of 16 straight losses in Salt Lake City, where the Clippers had prevailed just once in the previous 39 meetings.

"We really wanted this game," Paul said. "It's a new [Clippers] team right here."

The situation the Clippers had with the Jazz is not the same thing as the situation the Knicks have with the Cavaliers, but it's representative. Two weeks prior to LA's breakthrough win against Utah, they lost in that same building with Chris Paul sidelined by a hamstring strain. Maybe you'd think it would not affect the team's demeanor, but you are high on WD-40 if you think Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Mike D'Antoni don't want to crush the Cavs in the Garden. While this could be perceived as a good thing, this game could not come at a worse time. Integrating the returning players as well as the new additions into system, and establishing a regular rotation are paramount for the foreseeable future. A middling team like the Cavs presents a good opportunity to test that type of shit, but a loss will almost certainly bring out the doomsayers.

One silver lining of the lockout-shortened season is the inability of getting too high from a win or too low from a loss, because there's basically always a game within two days to replace it. While this volatile schedule allows meteoric rises (see: Lin, Jeremy & Antonio, San) and sudden falls (see: -Sixers, Seventy & Gets, Nug), it also prevents fans and, most importantly, members of the media from dwelling on particularly rough losses. To use a couple of recent examples, the Knicks got skewered for losing to the Hornets a couple weeks ago, but all the venom disappeared when they beat the defending champion Mavericks about 36 hours later to bring their record to .500. Normally a win with those implications would have Knicks fans and national media entities riding high for days, but in the shortened season wouldn't allow it. The Knicks lost to a garbage New Jersey team the next day and that was that. Two nights later they blew out Atlanta at home, erasing the New Jersey loss, and opening the door for Miami to lift the Knicks in the air and slam them back down to Earth before the All-Star break.

Although I've belabored it, the point is that this is a very, very unique week in the context of this season. After the Cavs game, the Knicks have Thursday, Friday and Saturday off, an unprecedented three day break. This is the Knicks' longest non-All-Star break of the season. This break, along with the increased expectations from the Lin Era, the relatively complete roster, and the team's dismal recent performance against Cleveland will make a loss tonight the bane of every Knicks fan's existence, particularly if it is coupled (quintupled?) with a poor performance from Lin.

Another important note on the Cavs: Last season, they were statistically the second worst team in the league offensive efficiency at 99.5 points per 100 possessions. This year, they are ranked 22nd, which isn't any good but it's a significant improvement. This improvement comes despite handing out 33 minutes per game to a 35 year old Antawn Jamison and 23 minutes per game to a 36 year old Anthony Parker. The lesson? Kyrie Irving is excellent. In terms of plot, that's thicker than shit! But that's not all!

If you've been following the Knicks for more than a month (here's lookin' at you, Linsaniacs!) you know that the TD Garden hasn't been kind to the Knicks. The last three times the Knicks have played in Boston, they lost by 2, 3 and 2 points respectively, and two of those losses were excruciating playoff editions, which I understand to be the worst kind from what I've read in magazines and Bill Simmons columns. You could understand why I always scan the schedule and circle "@Boston," so I can plan ahead for when I'll inevitably overrun with grief and gloom.

Aside from the obvious "hatred" and "boiling, writhing, personified hatred," there are several tangible reasons this game thickens this week's plot.

  1. New York's current record: 17-18. Boston's current record: 16-17 (a separation in win percentage of 0.001%, apparently).
  2. The Knicks won the season opener against the Celtics, followed by the Celtics taking game two about a month ago. Considering playoff implications, particularly how close in record these two teams are, this game is crucial in case of a seeding tie-breaker. Although these two teams meet again in the middle of April, there is no telling what injuries could pop up or what trades could be made. Viewed in this light, this game is huge.
  3. Boston is 3-7 in their last ten games, with losses against Toronto and Detroit (twice!). They probably will never be more vulnerable than they are now.
  4. The last Knicks team to perform this effectively on defense was Jeff Van Gundy's 2000-2001 squad. The last Knicks team to perform this ineffectively on offense was also the Van Gundy: Lockout Edition Knicks who made the NBA finals. It is not a coincidence the Knicks are performing so well defensively, as offense is down across the league (which explains why every talking head who has said something along the lines of "The Mavericks lost Tyson Chandler and their defense somehow improved!" is simply wrong). The point here is that the Knicks are bad at offense, but so is everyone else.
  5. The last time he played in Boston, Carmelo Anthony had a relatively pedestrian game. The game before that, he did this.
  6. Three and a half games currently separate the Knicks from the Atlanta Hawks and the sixth seed in the conference standings. General wisdom dictates that, in order for the Knicks to make a splash in the playoffs, they need to grab the sixth seed or better. Doing so means avoiding the likes of Chicago or, even worse, Miami in the postseason. With only 31 games remaining and the Hawks missing Al Horford, there is no time like the present to close the gap.
  7. The Boston Celtics, statistically, can go fuck themselves. Especially Paul Pierce.
Now you know this week's plot. 'Tis a truly unique and potentially calamitous week for ye olde New Amsterdam Knickerbockers, but after another rousing All-Star weekend, any sort of legitimate basketball will tickle my fancy. Hopefully the Knicks can pull off wins against both the Cavs and Celtics, because they approaching a very mean and nasty section of their schedule. The calm before the storm is an opportunity to stock up on supplies wins.
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