March Madness is officially underway and the Knicks aren't even close to locking up an automatic bid. It'll be a few weeks, maybe even after the NCAA champion is crowned, before we even have an idea of who the Knicks will match up against in the first round of the playoffs. Or if they'll even earn an invitation to the NBA's spring dance.
And while it seems unlikely that this team, with a very favorable schedule to close out the season, will drop completely out of the field of eight in the East, the Knicks could still finish anywhere from fifth to seventh. They trail the Hawks by 3 1/2 games for the fifth seed and yet the 76ers are on their heels by just a half-game in seventh.
Would a drop to seventh be better because of how well the Knicks have fared so far against the Bulls this season (2-0 so far, though with the previous group)? Would finishing sixth be best because it would set up a first-round, star-studded matchup with the presumably beat-able Heat (2-2 this season)?
Wouldn't you rather avoid the fifth seed because it means playing the Orlando Magic, who give the Knicks trouble and have a player they just don't match up well against in Dwight Howard?
For a Knicks team that just got back Chauncey Billups and needs to take these last 17 games to get their own house in order, there is no time for bracketology.
"The biggest thing is just trying to play well to get in the playoffs," Mike D'Antoni said. "If you're playing well at that point, no matter what you've got to win on the road anyway . . .It's not that big of a deal."
Getting that asterisk next to their name in the standings is the main thing. The Knicks play just six of their final 17 games against teams with a winning record. Nine of their final 17 are at home. The seven-year glitch should be over by the season finale on April 13 in Boston.
The conference standings are listed on a board outside the Knicks' locker room at MSG Training Center, so the players know the situation. And D'Antoni said the coaching staff keeps the team up on the playof picture and they often reference "the urgency of just getting in the playoffs."
What's alarming is we didn't see much of an urgency in the 106-93 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Sunday at the Garden. It's one thing to have bouts with consistency and chemistry when you're trying to piece together a rebuilt team on the fly. But effort is something that has to always be evident and it wasn't in this game. When you consider the ugly losses to Cleveland, can the Knicks really afford these kinds of performances?
Perhaps the better question is, can D'Antoni?
* - The Knicks coach has gone to a match-up zone several times since Jared Jeffries arrived and, at times, it works. Against a team that came into the game as the third-worst shooting team in the NBA, it should have worked. But not when the zone is flat-footed and soft. There was way too much penetration into the heart of the zone and zero movement. A zone defense is useless when five players are just standing around. There just was zero defensive purpose out on the floor for the Knicks, who actually have had some strong defensive efforts since the trade but it has been so wildly inconsistent.
* - D'Antoni bemoaned his sluggish team's disturbing penchant to play "bully ball" as the offense sputtered in the troubling loss to the Pacers. "Bully Ball" is a term originally coined by assistant coach Dan D'Antoni, who used it to often describe Carmelo Anthony's game when presenting scouting notes to players in Phoenix. Considering the brute force Anthony uses to attack the basket, the term fit his game well.
But it also suggests that Anthony will take it himself a bulk of the time and get engaged in a personal battle. Bully Ball means isos, post-ups and four players standing around watching him take on his defender. So the fact that the Knicks offense lacked any flow in the ugly loss to the Pacers on Sunday isn't surprising.
And, ironically, with 'Bully Ball' employed, it seemed more like the Knicks were the ones being bullied in this one.
Carmelo was frustrated throughout the game by very physical defense from the highly-motivated Dahntay Jones, who started in place of under-the-weather Danny Granger. Jones knows Anthony well from their days as teammates in Denver and he had him completely out of the team concept right from the start. Anthony had 20 of his 25 points in the first half, but almost all of his offense was off isolation. Only two of his eight field goals in the first half came off assists (both from Chauncey Billups).
So much for Melo and Amar'e further developing that two-man game.
"We were a little stagnant out there," Amar'e Stoudemire said. "Offensively, we didn't quite get into a good rhythm."
D'Antoni was a little more direct: "We tried to beat them up," he said, "instead of moving the ball."
Carmelo, however, said he was the victim and it affected his offense (1-for-8 from the field in the second half).
"They let him beat me up tonight," Carmelo said of Jones, who was whistled for five fouls.
Here's the thing: Jones not only played tough defense on Anthony, but he also scored 18 points in 29:31. And when Jones went to the bench because of foul trouble, the Pacers filled him in with another tough defender, James Posey, who hit a pair of threes and grabbed four rebounds in 18:29.
You wonder if they actually benefitted from playing without Granger, who may be their leading scorer but he doesn't exactly engage defensively the way Jones and Posey did. Perhaps we'll know Tuesday night in the second game of his home-and-home in Indiana.
* - The guy that really got beat up -- and stands to see more of the same on Tuesday -- was Stoudemire, who took 14 free throws, was hammered back twice by 7-4 Roy Hibbert on drives to the rim, had his nose bloodied by the usual banging from Jeff Foster and was so out-hustled by Tyler Hansbrough that he even acknowledged the second-year forward with a slap five and a pat on the hip during a stoppage of play.
Pacers interim coach Frank Vogel was so giddy with the performance he said, "Tyler Hansbrough is a beast."
Such things are usually said about Stoudemire, but the Pacers just kept sending bigs out to pound him, which has been an effective way to slow him down.
Another effective strategy against Stoudemire is to draw a foul on him in the first quarter. You won't see him play physical defense or attack the glass until the second half. And if he's in foul trouble in the second half, he hardly puts up any resistence at all.
"I didn't want to be too aggressive out there, so [Hibbert] was able to get a couple of easy baskets due to the fact that I didn't want to pick up another one," Stoudemire said.
* - Considering the energy the young Pacers had going in this game and the foul trouble that Stoudemire was dealing with, would it have been that big of a deal to throw the athletic Derrick Brown into the game for a brief look just to see if he can provide a needed boost? We know he's not a polish offensive player, but the kid does get up and down the floor and he does play at the rim. Renaldo Balkman was inactive so Taz wasn't an option.
* - Jeffries was brought in to help Stoudemire defensively in the paint, but it seems Jeffries is always in foul trouble. Though he did draw two more offensive charges, which is his forte, he was called twice for blocking fouls because his feet were inside the restricted area under the basket. Jeffries did grab five rebounds in 19:37, but was 0 for 3 from the field, including two at the rim. He's now 2-for-14 from the field in seven games since he signed with the Knicks.
* - As we outlined in the Knicks Notebook in the print edition, a major reason for the Knicks' offensive issues in this game is because of an uncharacteristically bad collective production from the point guard position. Chanucey Billups (4-for-14, 0-for-7 from three) and Toney Douglas (1-for-12, 1-for-8) both had brutal nights shooting the ball. Billups said his leg was fine and refused to use it as an excuse, but the effects of sitting out six games -- and only practicing once in a two-week span -- were evident.
The Knicks had a chance to make this a game early in the fourth quarter when what was a 20-point deficit late in the third was cut to 87-77 with 10:37 to go. But while the Knicks defense held the Pacers to just four points over the next five minutes, the Knicks failed to score at all. And most of the issues involved the point guards, as Douglas missed a three and was called for an offensive foul and Billups missed two shots and had two turnovers, including an offensive charge.
Both players have to do better on Tuesday because, let's be honest, the Pacers didn't get much out of their point guards, Darren Collison (16 points, 8 assists, 4 turnovers) and A.J. Price (7 points 2 assists, 2 turnovers).
One positive note: Billups (6) and Douglas combined for 11 rebounds and Douglas had four of the Knicks' 15 offensive boards. The Knicks actually out-rebounded the Pacers 44-33 in the game.
* - Jeffries has good length at 6-11, but Ronny Turiaf is still the team's only real physical presence in the paint at center. He played 19:01 and had four points and three rebounds and two of the team's three blocked shots. The latter is a very low effort for the Knicks, who lead the league with 6.06 blocked shots per game.
* - Shawne Williams shot the ball very well (4-for-7, 3-for-6 from downtown) which not many other Knicks could say in this game. He and Douglas have to provide consistent offense off the bench, which is a major area of need for this team.
* - Have to say this was a tough game to present right after the Garden announced the 49 percent ticket price hike for next season. The effort couldn't have been worth the price of the current admission for those among the sellout crowd. Just bloggin.