- Stephen A. Smith, ESPNNewYork.com columnist
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About a thousand miles away from home, in a place nicknamed the second city, LeBron James repeatedly felt elbows, forearms, a hardwood floor and the overall physical presence of the Chicago Bulls. The Miami Heat's quest toward history came crashing down at the United Center as a result, as did the allure of dominance that had surrounded them all season.
Consider this good news for a few teams in the Eastern Conference -- arguably the New York Knicks, moreso than anyone else.
Thank coach Tom Thibodeau. Make sure to pick up the phone and dial that 312 Chicago area code to extend your gratitude, Carmelo Anthony. Because James and Dwyane Wade got beat up. Because the Bulls got out on Heat shooters and showcased the advantages of physicality over athleticism and marksmanship. And as a result, the Knicks can now make the argument they've got a legitimate chance of their own to upend the defending world champions.
All because of Kenyon Martin.
Yes, I said it!
"I think Kenyon has really, really helped our team," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said early Thursday. "The fact that we're so beat up at the big spots makes him that much more valuable to us. He's been anchoring our defense and making plays on offense out of our pick-and-roll sets. He's been a dual threat in that regard and it's been a real pleasure to have him. He helps us big time."
Forget the fact Martin is averaging just eight points and five rebounds. Pay attention to the impact he's had instead. The Knicks are more physical with Martin, bigger and more intimidating. And because of it, suddenly the notion of going up against Indiana or Chicago -- two teams that have had their way with the Knicks thus far -- isn't as daunting, not to mention the options K-Mart provides in the event New York is lucky to face Miami in the playoffs.
"I like the way we're playing right now, what we have available to us," Woodson added. "We'll see what happens."
To some degree, we already know.
Since the start of this six-game winning streak, the longest in the NBA following Miami's loss to Chicago, the Knicks possess the league's second-best shooting percentage (49.7 percent) behind the Dallas Mavericks (51.4 percent). The Knicks have made 61 3-pointers, which is third in the league behind Portland (63) and Miami (62). New York has also had 60 steals in that six-game span, with only Miami swiping more (62).
Impressive numbers underscoring a team that sits 18 games above .500 (44-26) -- which includes a 2½-game lead over the Brooklyn Nets in the Atlantic Division -- and is in line for their first division crown since 1994. But raw stats don't tell the whole story.
Anthony looks healthy and rested again. There has even been a few Jason Kidd sightings. And J.R. Smith, the team's second-leading scorer, is making a late-season push for sixth man of the year honors, joining Chris Gatling as the only players in the past 20 years to record at least 10 25-point, five-rebound games off the bench in a single season.
"That's a huge reason for the success we've enjoyed," Woodson said of Smith's contributions. "I'm so proud of him for the way he's improved himself on and off the court. We've addressed it in the past on numerous occasions and I've gotten on him pretty hard because I knew how important he'd be to this team. Even told him at the beginning that he wasn't going to start, that he was going to have to prove himself and accept that role.
"He's not only accepted it, he's thrived in that role, performing lights out. That, with Kenyon giving us what he's giving us, has put us in a really good position to make some noise in the postseason. So I'm just real excited about it. I really am."
Nobody needs to get too carried away, of course. Not with five of the Knicks' six wins in this streak coming against Utah, Orlando, Toronto (twice) and a Celtics squad without Kevin Garnett -- a team the Knicks would face in the first round if the playoffs began on Thursday with KG.
But it's still a Knicks team with one of the league's leading scorers in Melo (27.5 ppg), a lethal player off the bench in Smith, a point guard in Raymond Felton averaging 14.1 points and 5.6 assists, and a big boy in Martin willing to sacrifice points and pretty play to help Tyson Chandler down low once he gets healthy.
"We assembled this team with our eyes toward the playoffs, having a pretty big squad," Woodson said. "We wanted to have two types of teams so we could go in either direction. We wanted to have that versatility. Our intention was always being a big team. Kenyon is a major plus in that regard because he can do both: bang, plus play finesse ball with his athleticism. It gives us options."
Options the New York Knicks didn't have before Martin arrived.
Now we'll see where it gets them.
With Kenyon Martin, the Knicks now have a legit chance to beat the Heat.