Commentary

Knicks survive tough March schedule

After New York appeared to be in dire straits out West, the 'Bockers still believe

Updated: April 1, 2013, 3:09 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

Boston coach Doc Rivers could not tell a lie, and he could not help joking about it, either. This was about 50 minutes before the streaking Knicks ruined his night by romping to a 108-89 win over his Celtics Sunday night at the Garden for their eighth straight win. The reason Rivers was laughing beforehand was the same one Knicks coach Mike Woodson wound up smiling about a bit afterward: It was brought to both men's attention how Heat president Pat Riley is suddenly snorting and pawing at the dirt down in Miami.

The Knicks and Celtics rarely share a common goal, but trying to figure out a way to take down the front-running Miami Heat this season is one of them. The Celtics were the last team to eliminate the Heat in the East. The Knicks would like to be the next one. There are still 10 regular-season games to navigate before the playoffs. But Riley -- breaking his self-imposed habit of long public silences this season, a practice he stuck to even during the Heat's 27-game winning streak -- is behaving and posturing as if the postseason is already on.

[+] EnlargeCarmelo Anthony
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty ImagesCarmelo Anthony and the Knicks shook off the Celtics for the third time this season on Sunday.

On Friday, Riley issued a statement through a team spokesman telling Celts general manager Danny Ainge to "shut the (expletive) up" for mocking LeBron James for complaining about taking too many hard fouls in a loss to Chicago. "He drew him out -- I'm very proud of him for that, he threw him a smoke bomb," Rivers laughed Sunday. "(Riley) doesn't come out for much. But Danny will bring that out in you, so ... "

On Sunday, Riley's Heat tweaked the San Antonio Spurs, whom they are battling for the best record in the league, by leaving a handful of stars at home for their only visit of the season to San Antonio -- the same stunt the Spurs pulled when they visited the Heat earlier this season. And the Heat did it knowing they might be risking the same $250,000 fine San Antonio got from the league.

Now, if he wants to, Riley has a golden chance to poke the Knicks in the eye, too, when they visit Miami on Tuesday. He could tweak the way the Knicks' 18-5 start wouldn't have been taken nearly as seriously if it hadn't included two early wins over the Heat. He could dismiss the Knicks' lead in this season's head-to-head meetings by pointing out if these meetings mean so much, why are the Knicks so admittedly focused on finishing with the second-best record in the East so they could avoid playing the Heat before the conference finals? Hell, Riley could just remind everyone he quit the Knicks by fax way back when, and now just generally dislikes them on principle. There is a lot to preen about, if he wants.

But when Woodson was asked for a reaction to the rumor that the Heat may sit LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers against the Knicks, same as they did against the Spurs, Woodson just shrugged a little and said in that imperturbable, slow as molasses way of his, "I really don't care."

Pause.

"We've seen them enough."

A hint of a smile.

"They're pretty good," Woodson finally added. And the understatement made some people in his postgame press conference break up laughing.

Woodson and the rest of the Knicks have a right to smile and feel good after the season-saving month they just had. They won the head-to-head season series against the hated Celtics for the first time since the 2003-04 season with Sunday's rout.

The Knicks also ended their 18-game grind in March -- a stretch of the season that was predicted would be the death of them, especially once they started losing players to injuries -- with a 12-6 record.

And they continue to be on track for their first division title since 1994. That's not a misprint: 1994.

"It's a great month -- now we've got to figure out April," Woodson said.

As Woodson keeps pointing out, the Knicks are back to playing as well as they did at the start of the season. But what makes it more remarkable is they're doing it with a dramatically different cast. Amare Stoudemire, Rasheed Wallace and Tyson Chandler are all out (though Chandler could return in Miami Tuesday), and Jason Kidd's minutes are being trimmed. Scrap heap pickup Kenyon Martin, Celtics castoff Chris Copeland and Pablo Prigioni -- a 35-year-old NBA rookie -- were in the starting lineup against Boston Sunday instead.

And still the Knicks rolled.

New York has looked so good in its past two games against Boston, there's a credible argument to be make that the Knicks should actually be rooting to play the Celts, not the Bulls, in the first-round playoffs. And when's the last time the Knicks could say that?

Celts star Paul Pierce noticed it, too.

"If we play them in the playoffs and they think they got our number, we did it to ourselves," Pierce admitted after seeing the Knicks rain in 14 of the 27 3-pointers they shot Sunday, and pile up 23 assists to Boston's 12.

For all the talk about Chicago giving other teams a blueprint for stopping James and the Heat with the physical way they played them to break their winning streak, and for all the predictions that the Pacers -- whom the Knicks are battling for the No. 2 spot in the East -- are seemingly better equipped to execute the same game plan against Miami, Rivers hinted at one possible explanation for why the targets Riley was taking aim at over the weekend included neither of those teams.

When it comes to what it will take to unseat the Heat, Rivers said, "You've gotta have a firm belief, and I think that veteran teams probably have that advantage ... I think the Knicks believe that they can beat them. And so do we."

But again, the difference is the Knicks were better in their head-to-head series against both the Heat and the Celtics this year. The Knicks' faces keep changing, but the results stay the same.

When the Knicks play like they did Sunday, which is to say like they did early in the season, they have a right to believe anything is possible. March was supposed to be the death of them. Instead it only proved Miami isn't the only team in the East to fear.

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