The New York Knicks, at 26-15, have exceeded expectations in the first half of the season.
Even though they've lost five of eight, the fact that they are in second place in the Eastern Conference standings should surprise many who were evaluating this team in the preseason.
With five players older than 35, the prevailing feeling entering the season was that the Knicks were too old to compete, that the NBA was no league for old men. But the Knicks have, by and large, proved that perception wrong in the first half. Here is our midseason report:
REALISTIC GOAL: Some will say this team is a lock for the second seed in the East. I think it's way too early for that kind of bravado.
Earlier this month, the Knicks enjoyed a six-game division lead over the Brooklyn Nets. That edge is now 1½ games. They also seemed to be comfortably ahead of Indiana and Chicago in the conference. Not anymore.
It's more realistic to expect the Knicks to finish atop the Atlantic Division and to have home-court advantage in the first round, but anything beyond that is up in the air.
FIVE DATES THAT WILL SHAPE THE SECOND HALF
Feb. 15-17: All-Star Weekend isn't only important to Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, the two Knicks who will be playing in Houston. It's also important for older Knicks to recharge their batteries for the grueling stretch in March -- when Jason Kidd turns 40 -- and April.
Feb. 21: The trade deadline will be intriguing. The Knicks might be forced to make a move, via the trade market or free agency, to fortify their front line if Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace are still injured. And there's always the possibility that they pull a stunner and move Amar'e Stoudemire.
March 26: The Knicks travel to Boston for a rematch against their Atlantic Division rivals. Games in Boston are always big, but given the animosity between these two teams, this game takes on extra meaning.
April 2: This is the final Knicks-Heat matchup of the season, and New York's first trip to South Florida since beating Miami by 20 without Anthony. You think LeBron James will be out for revenge on his home floor? This game could be a tone-setter for a potential playoff matchup.
April 11: The Knicks have a chance to make a statement in Chicago against a team that has thoroughly dominated them this season. Can Mike Woodson solve the Bulls' defense? There also should be playoff implications in this one.
THREE DEVELOPMENTS THAT SHAPED THE FIRST HALF
MELO, NEW AND IMPROVED: Simply put, Carmelo Anthony is a more complete player. He entered the season in better shape than his previous years in New York and with a dedication to lead the Knicks on both ends of the floor. Anthony has given an honest day's effort on defense and has been more apt to share the ball. For all of those reasons, and his well-known scoring prowess, Anthony has put himself in the MVP conversation. J.R. Smith also deserves credit for displaying a more well-rounded game.
QUICKLY DEVELOPING CHEMISTRY: The Knicks were injury-riddled throughout the preseason, so Woodson barely got a chance to find out what his roster of elder statesman was capable of. Really, no one knew quite what to expect when the Knicks opened the season against Miami. But from the opening tip, the Knicks have looked like a team that had been together for 10 years. They played team defense, shared the ball well and took care of the ball -- three tenets of winning basketball. The defense has fallen off of late, which is something to keep an eye on in the second half of the season.
FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH: For a large stretch of the first half, Kidd had been nothing short of amazing for the Knicks. His stats were far from otherworldly, but he made small plays that were the difference between wins and losses. He also was shooting about 50 percent from beyond the arc and had a positive influence on Anthony. Since Raymond Felton went down with an injury, Kidd's production has slowed. With Felton back, Woodson will look to manage Kidd's minutes to make sure he is fresh for the rest of the season.