Commentary

Knicks must put league on notice

Now accountable under Mike Woodson, the 'Bockers obligated to finish strong

Updated: March 30, 2012, 9:39 AM ET
By Stephen A. Smith | ESPNNewYork.com

Sometimes it's not about winning New York's affection. Just winning.

Mike Woodson knew this when he inherited the job from Mike D'Antoni. Amare Stoudemire knew this when he arrived and signed on to collect $100 million. Carmelo Anthony was keenly aware of this long before he inked $85 million.

So the Knicks can't run from this obligation now.

Indeed, while a city sits around lavishing in the throes of the Knicks' victorious ways, knowing they are 8-1 since Woodson has been at the helm, it's not just the shellackings like they distributed to the Orlando Magic on Wednesday night that have been so joyful to watch.

"It's the accountability factor," Woodson told me, days before Wednesday's beatdown of Orlando. "If there is a difference in this team from what we've been seeing, it involves accountability. The players' willingness to play for one another as opposed to just playing with one another. Their willingness to accept blame for the things they know they are not doing.

"I'm going to hold them accountable because that's just the way that I am. That is what I do. But I believe in this team. I believe in our ability to be great, and I've told them so. And knowing they believe in themselves, then there's no excuse to avoid getting the job done. And when they've struggled to do so, they don't look for anyone else to pass the buck to. They accept it themselves."

They'll need to.

Because as the Knicks get set to embark upon the close-out month of the regular season, everything appears on the line.

A job is potentially on the line for Woodson, looking to remove that interim tag from his title. A reputation, and a city's affection, is on the line for Carmelo Anthony -- now loving life in the post and treated like the focal point he should've always been -- to win back hearts in the city of Gotham, after his struggles under D'Antoni regressed into him spending nearly a year giving piece by piece of his heart away.

More importantly, everything's on the line for the Knicks due to their remaining regular-season schedule, along with their standing in the Eastern Conference. Because regardless of what anyone says, they don't want any part of Chicago or Miami in the first round.

Mike Woodson, Carmelo Anthony
AP Photo/Kathy WillensMike Woodson has brought accountability to the Knicks since taking over as interim coach.

"When we're on our game, we can play with anybody," Tyson Chandler said recently.

Forgive the man! He knows not what he says.

While it's nice that the Knicks (26-25) are finally above .500 for the first time since Jan. 14, what's not nice is their eighth-seeded position in the East. And although they are five games back for the sixth seed, they're only two games from catching Philadelphia and Boston atop the Atlantic Division.

Division winners are accorded a top-four seed in the playoffs. That means the Knicks wouldn't have to play Chicago and Miami. Which means the possibility of them advancing past the first round of the playoffs would improve significantly.

"It's really not something we're worried about right now," Woodson deadpanned.

Touché!

Woodson is wise to express such sentiments -- so long as he's lying. If he's telling the truth, then his vision is every bit as myopic as D'Antoni's was in handing Jeremy Lin the reins with the likes of Stoudemire and Melo on his roster.

The Knicks will have 13 games in the first 26 days of April, completing the regular season. Eight of those games are against definitive playoff teams. Two are against Chicago. Three are home games versus Chicago, Miami and the Los Angeles Clippers. There are additional road games at Atlanta, Orlando and Indiana. Another is at Milwaukee, still on the Knicks' heels for the final playoff spot. And nine of the games will be nationally televised.

"I'll give [the fans] what they want," Melo reportedly said. "I just want to step up. That's it. I've got to take on that responsibility to try and win these basketball games."

The more the merrier. A higher playoff seeding ensures that.

Despite the walking abomination that Dwight Howard was on Wednesday night -- with Knicks shooting ace Steve Novak even outscoring him 13-12 after three full quarters -- Orlando could still beat the Knicks, although it's a pick'em series. We know better than to say such a thing about the Bulls or Heat.

The thing is, in the absence of Stoudemire and Lin, Melo, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Chandler -- my vote for NBA Defensive Player of the Year -- are still making noise. The Knicks, playing the kind of tenacious defense we haven't seen from them in years, have raised a few eyebrows in the basketball world.

Now it's time to finish the job. To put the NBA on notice.

"We're coming," Baron Davis said a few days ago.

Yes they are. But to where is the question?

Leave it to Woodson to have the best answer:

"How we finish will determine a lot for us."

Stephen A. Smith | email

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Stephen A. Smith is a featured columnist for ESPNNewYork.com, a co-host on First Take" and a regular on "SportsCenter."

EDITORS' PICKS