Knicks' chances of making playoffs continue to improve

Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks celebrates a basket Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks celebrates a basket in the first half against the Indiana Pacers with teammates Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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The talk of the visiting locker room at Wells Fargo Center on Friday night naturally was the Knicks' narrow, harrowing escape from what would have been a difficult-to-believe loss to the 76ers.

But there was a subplot. In a game in Atlanta that started a half-hour later, the Hawks were battling the Pelicans.

As the Knicks showered and dressed, the Pelicans closed out a 111-105 victory, and everyone concerned knew the implications: What once was a seemingly implausible late run to the playoffs had taken another step toward reality.

The Knicks trail both Charlotte and Atlanta by four games in the loss column with 13 Knicks games to play. And their next three opponents -- the Cavaliers, Lakers and Kings -- have poorer records than they do.

Early this past week, ESPN.com's Hollinger's NBA Playoff Odds estimated the Knicks had a 6.0 percent chance to reach the postseason. After Wednesday's upset of the Pacers, that figure rose to 9.0. Saturday morning, it was at 13.5.

The Knicks know all this, but the company line urged maintaining the focus that has forged the eight-game winning streak that improved their record to 29-40.

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"We still have to dominate; we have a ways to go," Amar'e Stoudemire said after learning the Hawks had lost. "We have to make up those games, so we still have to keep playing."

Said Carmelo Anthony, "We have to keep doing what we do. We don't want to rely on what Atlanta does. We have to focus on us. Right now, we're winning basketball games. We have to continue doing that."

Reaching the playoffs would be meaningful even if it did lead to a first-round mismatch against the Pacers or Heat. New team president Phil Jackson has said the Knicks would benefit from the experience -- and he would benefit from observing the players in that setting.

Remember, the Knicks do not own a first-round pick and thus gain nothing from falling into the draft lottery. Also, assuming Anthony returns next season, the current core likely will remain in place for 2014-15, so why not try to make some playoff noise together and take that into next fall?

Had the Knicks not barely handed the 76ers their 23rd consecutive loss, 93-92, all of the above likely would have been moot, and Jackson might have called in from California to fire Mike Woodson on the spot.

The coach cleared the bench with a 17-point lead and five minutes left, only to be forced to reinsert his regulars with 32.5 seconds remaining and the advantage down to two points. What would have been a tying three-pointer by Michael Carter-Williams rattled in and out with a second left.

"It happens," Stoudemire said. "The positive from it is we still got the win."

Another positive is that Stoudemire continues to look many years younger than he did in the previous couple of seasons, establishing himself inside and finishing with 22 points and 10 rebounds against the 76ers.

The Knicks' starting front line of Stoudemire, Anthony and Tyson Chandler combined for 60 of the Knicks' 93 points and 28 of their 47 rebounds.

"He is playing tremendous basketball, man," Woodson said. "It's nice to see because he has put a lot of work in to get to this point."

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Stoudemire has been careful to pace himself, but the Knicks have no margin for error and no time to rest. After Sunday night's home game against the Cavaliers, they will play five in seven days west of the Rockies.

There still is a long distance to travel, both in the air and in the standings, but three weeks ago, who could have guessed they would get this far?

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