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SportsColumnistsAl Iannazzone

Jeff Van Gundy thinks Knicks are 'legitimate threat' in Eastern Conference

Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy tries to

Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy tries to give directions to his teammates during the fourth quarter of a basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. (March 5, 2007) Credit: AP

Jeff Van Gundy will be watching the Knicks in the playoffs with great interest, whether he's calling their games or just sitting in front of a television.

The last Knicks coach to win 50 games and get out of the first round -- both in 2000 -- likes how this team moves and shoots the ball. Van Gundy also said Carmelo Anthony doesn't get enough credit as a superstar and that the 52-win Knicks have the pieces to make a deep playoff run in a watered-down Eastern Conference.

"Winning 50 games in the NBA is difficult," said Van Gundy, ABC's lead analyst. "They should be applauded for where they were just a year and a half ago to where they are now. I think they've done a good job of finding people to help them. I think Mike Woodson has done a terrific job coaching them. I think Carmelo Anthony, for whatever reason, doesn't have favored nation status among the media. I'm not sure he'll ever get the credit he probably deserves. He's had a terrific year.

"The Eastern Conference isn't very good. There's been major injuries -- [Amar'e] Stoudemire, [Derrick] Rose, [Danny] Granger, [Rajon] Rondo -- just from the playoff teams. That's weakened the conference. I'm really interested to see where they go and I think it's going to be fascinating to watch."

Van Gundy considers the Heat "a very strong favorite" but said that if the Knicks can reach the conference finals, "then they are a legitimate threat to win it."

The biggest concerns for the Knicks -- the Atlantic Division champions for the first time since 1993-94, when Van Gundy was an assistant -- involve their health. Tyson Chandler (neck) and Kenyon Martin (ankle) are banged up. Raymond Felton is playing on a mildly sprained right knee.

One of the things Van Gundy is most intrigued about is how the Knicks will shoot in the playoffs because they rely so heavily on the three-pointer. He said they can win that way but also could "lose to a lower-seeded team" if their shots aren't falling.

"It's highly volatile," Van Gundy said. "They've done a good job in the fact that they have a number of guys who can shoot it. Anthony is playing so well that the second defender is going to be coming. They space the floor, they share the ball. They're playing well."

The Knicks were a perennial playoff team when Van Gundy walked away in 2001. They've made the playoffs only four times since, but this is their third year in a row. So they're heading in the right direction with Anthony leading them.

"It just shows you how hard it is to win in this league, and how hard it is to get the right best player and right mix of players,'' Van Gundy said. "It's not easy. Everybody's trying to do it. Rebuilding is hard.

"I didn't know it was going to take this long to be a significant team again. But I thought their efforts were always good toward winning. Some of it might have been misguided in terms of guys that they wanted to believe in. But this is a good team. They're enjoyable."

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