STAT: Coach gave 'ultimatum' to play hard

NEW YORK -- The Knicks are playing like they should for any NBA team in their position.

When you're currently hanging on to the eighth seed and trying to move up in the standings to avoid the Heat or Bulls in the first round, all while the upgraded Bucks with Monta Ellis sit just one game back, you can't let up for 48 minutes.

And that's just what the Knicks have been doing -- something that was missing toward the end of Mike D'Antoni's tenure as head coach. The Knicks were clinging then, too, to the eighth spot, but after going 2-8 in D'Antoni's final 10 games, they obviously needed a different push -- and Mike Woodson has provided that.

What it came down to was an "ultimatum" Woodson placed on the players, which Amare Stoudemire described in the locker room after New York topped Toronto, 106-87, Tuesday night at the Garden.

"We know what we've got to do to [is] win," STAT said. "Coach Woodson put that ultimatum on us for us to go out there and play hard. We know how great we are from a personnel standpoint. It's just a matter of playing that way. We all want to win a championship. That's the ultimate goal for us. We've got to take it one step at a time and try to continue to improve."

Stoudemire said the motivation to improve their playoff seeding is what's fueling them to play with a greater sense of urgency.

"We're a different team right now," Stoudemire said. "We're playing at a high level at both ends of the court. We're shooting the ball well offensively. We're very, very tenacious, Kamikaze-style defensively right now. We're all over teams and we've just got to keep that going."

The Knicks aren't just winning games, they're putting opponents completely away. In fact, since Woodson replaced D'Antoni exactly a week ago, they've outscored their opponents by a total of 90 points -- the largest point differential for any team in NBA history over its first four games following a coaching change.

"It's great closing quarters, closing halves, closing games," Stoudemire said. "It's just something that we've got to continue to do. We've been doing a great job of that over the past four games and we've got to keep it going."

Under Woodson, the Knicks have been taking care of business in every quarter and Tuesday night, they put on their best defense-leading-into-offense performance to close the contest. They outscored the Raptors 27-19 in the final period by forcing them into five turnovers and making a living in transition. Woodson said it was "fun to watch."

"Coach [Dwane] Casey called a timeout I think at that four- or five-minute mark, and we came out after the timeout and we did what we had to do from a defensive standpoint," Woodson said. "Make no mistake about it, it was our defense that got us that spurt that we needed. And that's what good teams are supposed to do. We've just got to bottle it up and just continue to do it."

Before the game, Woodson said he wanted to see his guys man up more defending the pick-and-roll, and not switch as much. That extra ball pressure overwhelmed point guard Jose Calderon and his screener during the game. Woodson also looked to wear down the Raptors by instituting more full-court traps. Since taking over for D'Antoni, he's been able to push his players defensively because of the team's depth.

With the way the Knicks are playing, Stoudemire said the smiles are returning and they need to remain for them to build on their current winning streak.

"I think everybody feels great, having fun, enjoying the game of basketball and that's what it's about," he said. "When you enjoy doing your job, it makes it much easier to play."

Of course, there are still some critics who want to see how the Knicks stack up to a much more formidable opponent. The winning streak has included wins over two struggling teams (the Trail Blazers and Raptors) and an inconsistent one in the Pacers. Well, tonight Woodson and the Knicks face off against their biggest challenge yet, the Atlantic Division-leading Sixers.

It will also be interesting to see if the Knicks can maintain their "tenacious, Kamikaze-style" defense, as Stoudemire coined it. There are still 20 games remaining in the compressed schedule, which includes mostly four matchups per week and five more back-to-backs. The biggest positive is the team's depth. That's something, barring any injuries, that will help them maintain their effort and energy in the shortened season.

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