Mike Woodson, right, talks with Carmelo Anthony during a game...

Mike Woodson, right, talks with Carmelo Anthony during a game against Portland. (March 14, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

ATLANTA -- Carmelo Anthony may not be right physically, but he seems to have found the rhythm he's been searching for and the role he's been craving since February.

Anthony, who is playing with a strained right groin, is flourishing in a familiar role: carrying his team.

"The last two games he's done that," interim coach Mike Woodson said. "I've tried to utilize him in that area, by giving him the ball and trying to get him going."

Anthony's effort and play is not the only area of improvement. The Knicks are more focused and dedicated on the defensive end, which has helped them go 8-1 under Woodson, open a 2 1/2-game lead on the Bucks for the East's final playoff spot and climb within 21/2 games of the 76ers and Celtics, who share the Atlantic Division lead.

Under Woodson, the Knicks have held seven opponents to fewer than 90 points. They're allowing an average of 86.0 in those nine games compared to 96.5 in the first 42. Also, the Knicks are plus-84 in rebounds after being minus-46 before Woodson took over.

The Knicks also have won four games against teams above them in the standings -- two against the Pacers, one each against the 76ers and Magic.

"It's been stifling the way we've been playing defense," Woodson said. "If you talk about winning your division or getting deep into the playoffs and possibly putting yourself in a position to win a title, you're going to have to defend and rebound and hope that the offense is where it needs to be by guys being unselfish and playing together."

Anthony scored 28 and 25 points the past two games, wins that put the Knicks (26-25) over .500 for the first time in more than two months. The last time he had back-to-back 20-plus-point games in victories was Jan. 9 and 11.

Jeremy Lin (knee) remains questionable Friday night against the Hawks and Amar'e Stoudemire (back) is out. So Anthony will try to carry the Knicks to their fourth straight win and ninth in 10 games under Woodson, who for the first time will face the team he coached for six years.

Woodson has made some subtle changes since replacing Mike D'Antoni, including fewer defensive switches on pick-and-rolls. On offense, Woodson is posting Anthony more, giving him the ball inside and letting him make plays.

"We never had a conversation about it," Anthony said. "He incorporated that into the offense and I guess he saw that I feel comfortable down there."

It's helped Anthony the past two games, especially with his groin bothering him. He has gotten easy baskets and attempted 18 foul shots. In Wednesday's blowout of Orlando, he eventually worked his way outside and knocked down shots, including two three-pointers.

The Knicks have 15 games remaining and one of the NBA's most difficult schedules. They play nine on the road and eight against teams with winning percentages above .560. But they are undaunted by their schedule and the mounting injuries.

"We come to the gym with a resolve that we got to hang our hat on our defense, we got to get out and we got to fast break and we got to make open shots," Baron Davis said. "We're capable. We have a lot of talent on this team."