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SportsColumnistsAl Iannazzone

Knicks Insider: Knicks need to be strong during tough upcoming stretch

New York Knicks head coach Mike Woodson directs

New York Knicks head coach Mike Woodson directs his team during the first half against the Philadelphia 76ers. (Jan. 26, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

The Knicks were in second place in the Eastern Conference when the calendar turned to March. If they're still there when April hits, the Knicks will have re-established themselves as a legitimate contender.

No one outside of the Knicks' locker room believes this team can beat the Heat right now. Not with the way they've played over the last two months of the season and how much better LeBron James and the Heat have played since their two 20-point losses to the Knicks. Miami visits the Garden Sunday having won 13 in a row.

But if the Knicks are ever going to regain that sense-of-urgency or us-against-the-world cliched mentality that helped them play like world-beaters from November through mid-December the time is now.

March comes in like a lion for the Knicks and goes out like one, too.

After playing a league-low 54 games through February -- six fewer than the Clippers and Pistons -- the Knicks have 18 games in March. By comparison, they played their previous 18 games over 49 days.

"This is our schedule and we can't run from it," Mike Woodson said.

Having one game in London in January could have contributed to the Knicks' scheduling quirk but the Pistons were the opponent across the pond and look how many they played.

The Knicks beat the Wizards Friday to open March. Sunday, the Knicks begin a stretch of four games in five days, starting with the defending champions and ending with runner-up Oklahoma City.

It's just the beginning though.

The Knicks play nine more road games, including a West trip that starts in Golden State, runs through Denver, Portland, the Los Angeles Clippers and ends in Utah. The Knicks also have home games against the Grizzlies and Celtics.

The Knicks can't afford too much slippage after all their slip-ups in recent weeks.

Since starting 18-5, they've gone 17-15. Eight defeats have been at home and some are the ones that can come back to haunt you at times like this. The two losses to Toronto and one each to Washington, Philadelphia, Portland and Sacramento come to mind.

The Knicks are an older team so rest will be important. Woodson already said there won't be many practices in March. Certainly there is a fear that the Knicks could break down.

But on the flip side because they're a veteran team, they could know how to handle this kind of month and know what they have to do to keep their bodies right.

Ultimately, the Knicks' season will be determined by what they do in the playoffs. But whether they have one of the top seeds, and whether they open at home or on the road could be determined by what they do this month.

Collins has his Phil

76ers coach Doug Collins sounded off with a smile on his face after Philadelphia lost its sixth straight game. Some of Collins' comments were self-serving and some true. His main gripe was his players aren't playing hard enough.

Some of the highlights:

"If everybody looked inside themselves as much as I did, this world would be a CT scan."

"I love it when the fans start yelling at me. I'm not playing. You didn't yell me at when I played. Why are you yelling at me when I'm coaching?

"They say it's a players' league. Well, then take ownership. Take ownership. That's all I'm asking. Take ownership of what you're putting out there."

A needed change

Coach Mike Woodson said several times over the past few weeks he was considering a change to the starting lineup, and he finally made one Friday in Washington.

Jason Kidd came off the bench and was the primary ballhandler and point guard for the second unit. Running the team is a role he's much more comfortable with than playing off guard. Kidd still played in the fourth quarter and finished the game.

Whether Woodson continues to go this way -- with James White starting -- remains to be seen. He could continue to change things up. Eventually, though, the Knicks should have a set starting five.

They could use more offense with the first unit. Over the last 15 games, the Knicks starting shooting guard and small forward have combined for 94 points. Playing two guys that the opposition essentially doesn't have to guard means defenses focus on Carmelo Anthony more.

Putting Amar'e Stoudemire with the first team would alleviate some of that, but it doesn't seem that's going to happen. Woodson has had plenty of opportunities and hasn't yet done that.

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