How High Is New York Knicks' Playoff Ceiling If Carmelo Anthony Stays Hot?

Sean Hojnacki@@TheRealHojnackiFeatured ColumnistApril 6, 2013

Carmelo Anthony has three consecutive 40-point games. What else is he capable of?
Carmelo Anthony has three consecutive 40-point games. What else is he capable of?Elsa/Getty Images

Carmelo Anthony's recent play has put him on a historic level, and even the biggest skeptics are mumbling about the New York Knicks possibly challenging the Miami Heat's dominance.

Anthony's 41 points against the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night gave him 40 or more in each of his last three games, tying Bernard King for the Knicks franchise record.

Earlier in the day, a writer by the name of Tom Van Riper from proclaimed Anthony to be one of the NBA's "most overpaid players." Why? Because "scoring is overvalued."

I wonder if he watched win No. 9 of the Knicks' streak.

That was Melo's first game over 40 and it came against the Heat on Tuesday—an absolute clinic on outside shooting. He poured in 50 points and somehow did it all from outside the paint.

His 131 points over three games is the most by any player this season (per Alex Kennedy of HOOPSWORLD). 

But most importantly, all three games have been victories for the Knicks as they've stretched their win streak to 11 games and essentially run away with the Atlantic Division.

They're playing better than any team in the league right now, although it should be noted that the Knicks are not resting all their "injured" stars, unlike some teams who shall remain nameless.

So how far can these Knicks go in the postseason? Based on recent evidence, there's no reason to think that New York can't make a run to the NBA Finals.

But (and this is a big caveat) everything will have to go just right for them to do it.


Mellifluous Melo

Anthony missed three games in mid-March due to fluid in his knee as the New York Knicks hit a four-game skid. Suddenly, the sky was falling in New York and all the doubters had been vindicated.

Then a funny thing happened. The Knicks salvaged the final tilt of their five-game road trip against the Utah Jazz. Then Anthony returned and the team won their next 10 contests.

Clearly, Carmelo is not feeling any ill effects from his sore knee.

His irrepressible shooting over the last three games has put him in the company of Michael Jordan, the last player to score 40 points and shoot better than 60 percent in three consecutive games (per Jamie Stuart of News 12 Long Island). 

Melo's torrid scoring has even vaulted him into contention for the scoring title with Kevin Durant.

Durant is seeking his fourth consecutive scoring title, but no one in the league is hotter than Carmelo right now.

Perhaps ESPN tweeted it best in their homage to Zoolander:

There's no denying it. But he will have to stay that hot and continue playing MVP-caliber basketball if he wants the Knicks to make noise in the postseason.


J.R. Swish

Along with Melo's dominance, J.R. Smith has been no slouch. While Smith has cooled slightly over his last three games, he turned in a sensational month of March.

He averaged 22.1 points and 6.0 rebounds per game; he put up five 30-point games off the bench, including three straight.

The real coup was his shooting percentage, which was above 50 percent in six consecutive contests. This was all due to his shot selection, as Smith relentlessly attacked the paint for easy buckets and copious trips to the line.

While he still has the step-back jumper in his arsenal, it is no longer his go-to move. Having unleashed his attacking instinct, Smith joins Anthony as an elite offensive threat that every opponent must lose sleep over.

Still, Smith said of Anthony's hot streak, "We're going to keep passing him the ball 'till the wheels fall [off]" (per the Knicks' Twitter account).

Good move, always defer to the superstar.


The Infirmary

Besides the need for Smith and Anthony to continue their stellar play, the Knicks need to heal up over the next two weeks before the playoffs begin.

Kenyon Martin may have saved the Knicks' season, as his return to the NBA coincided perfectly with Tyson Chandler's neck injury, which kept him out for 10 games. Chandler still appears to be healing, but he certainly has no problem playing through pain.

K-Mart helped spark New York's recent winning ways, averaging over 13 points and almost nine rebounds a night through the first five games of the streak.

Getting him back healthy from his sore knee will be critical to match up against more physical opponents.

Marcus Camby was not with the team for Friday's game due to left plantar fasciitis and remains a question mark.

New York's three-headed monster in the backcourt has been punishing opponents with their dynamic play and pesky defense.

Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni can run the point, but Felton has been resurgent since moving to the 2. Over 18 games in March, Felton averaged 13.3 points and shot 50 percent from the field.

Iman Shumpert has offered inconsistent offense, but he's still capable of guarding each opponent's best scorer. Steve Novak has been hunting for shots lately, which is a very encouraging sign.

Regardless of what any blowhard or stat geek might say, New York is a better team with a healthy Amar'e Stoudemire. Though he told, "Hopefully, I’ll be back for the playoffs," coach Mike Woodson seemed less optimistic, saying, "I don’t know what the timetable is."

But even without Amar'e or Rasheed Wallace, the surging Knicks as presently rostered are capable of beating any team in the league. Provided they're at 100 percent and playing to the team concept they've displayed lately, a trip to the finals could easily be in their future.


Playoff Matchups

The Knicks have opened a six-game lead over the Brooklyn Nets and have the Atlantic Division all but sewn up. Now they will turn their attention to staying ahead of the Indiana Pacers and maintaining the second seed. 

Predicting first-round matchups is considerably more difficult.

The middle of the Eastern Conference is packed tighter than a subway at rush hour. The Boston Celtics lead the Bucks by 2.5 games for the seventh seed. The fourth through sixth seeds are totally up for grabs with just two games separating the Nets, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks.

Based on past evidence, the Knicks struggle against physical opponents, so the Bulls or Celtics might not be a favorable matchup. New York is 0-3 this season against Chicago but 3-1 versus Boston.

Then again, both teams are banged up, so New York could outmuscle them.

The Knicks would gladly take on the Hawks or Bucks, as they are 5-0 against them this season.

Looking past the first round, New York's chief threats are clearly the Heat and Pacers. Though the Knicks took three out of four from Miami, the Heat proved they are a well-oiled machine with their 27-game win streak.

The Pacers, by contrast, have a gritty frontcourt and efficient scorers at multiple positions. They play suffocating defense and could frustrate the Knicks, who have proved prone to tantrums in the past, especially when play turns scrappy. 

Regardless of who they face, New York fans should be disappointed with anything less than a trip to the Eastern Conference finals after seeing the elite capability of their team over their 11-game win streak.

Carmelo and J.R. Smith must continue their electric efforts, and the Knicks' ailing frontcourt will have to rest up for the rapidly approaching postseason.

If these things happen, there's no reason the Knicks can't face the best in the West for the Larry O'Brien trophy.


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