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SportsColumnistsAl Iannazzone

Knicks Insider: Knicks' strong start set the bar high

Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton of the Knicks

Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton of the Knicks look on late in a game against the Toronto Raptors. (Feb. 13, 2013) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

LOS ANGELES - The Knicks were off and running when the season started, and now they are limping to the finish line.

They'll still be a playoff team and probably still will hold the home-court advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs, but that's not certain anymore.

The Knicks -- who once looked like a potential threat to the defending champion Heat and appeared ready to end the franchise's long stretch without a playoff series victory -- have changed dramatically in the last three months.

It's not just the recent injuries suffered by Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler and the surgeries that ended the regular season for Amar'e Stoudemire and Rasheed Wallace, although they are major factors. The Knicks have slipped at both ends of the floor since their 18-5 start, haven't put forth the same effort and commitment and have become too predictable on offense. The production of many players has dipped.

As a result, they've gone 20-20 since Dec. 17 and are clinging to a one-game lead over the Nets in the Atlantic Division.

"I'm concerned," Chandler said. "We've been in a little bit of a decline. Even in our wins. There are some things we have to address as a team. We have to get serious about it."

With 19 games remaining, the Knicks still can right themselves, still can find that sense of urgency that they are going to need to win their first division title since 1994 and their first playoff series since 2000, provided Anthony and Chandler hold up.

Regardless of where the Knicks finish the regular season, winning a series is what matters most. But realistically, merely reaching the second round won't be enough to make it a successful season. Not after their start. Not after Anthony's MVP-type performance early. Not after the way they beat the Heat in their first two meetings. Not after going 2-0 against the Spurs.

The expectations rose after all of that. It became conference finals or bust.

No one is saying the Knicks can't get there. But even if they do, it's probably going to be another busy offseason for them.

First and foremost, who knows what the future holds for Stoudemire and his knees?

The Knicks have six players on expiring contracts. Jason Kidd will turn 41 next season and Marcus Camby will be 40, and there have been times this season that they've looked older than that.

The Knicks need to get younger and more athletic. They need to get better point guard play and perimeter play all the way around. They need a young, starting-caliber power forward and some dependable big men off the bench.

And everyone needs to remember that no championships are won in November and December. It's not how you to start. It's how you finish.

Carmelo's return

Anthony's Denver homecoming produced some bizarre scenes, including the star removing himself from a game and walking off the court for the second time in 10 days.

In his first game back since pushing his way to the Knicks in February 2011, Anthony received a mix of cheers and boos when he was introduced. Then he was booed whenever he touched the ball.

The Nuggets played a "welcome back" video tribute for Anthony, J.R. Smith, Marcus Camby, Kenyon Martin and Raymond Felton, which got some applause. After Anthony left with his knee issue, there were chants of "We want Melo," "Where is Melo?" and "Who needs Melo?"

All things considered, it was very tame.

Maybe time healed the Nuggets fans' wounds. After all, it had been 25 months since the trade. Or maybe the fans are happy because the trade helped the Nuggets assemble a strong team that remains a playoff contender.

Felton's return

Raymond Felton was treated much worse by the Portland fans Thursday than Anthony was in Denver. And Felton played only 60 games for the Trail Blazers.

The boos were much louder, angrier and more frequent, and every Felton turnover, missed shot and air ball was celebrated wildly. "I guess I did make a big impact if they did boo me like that," he said.

He was the scapegoat for what went wrong last season because he was out of shape and had a subpar year. Still, Felton's treatment in Portland was nothing compared to the vitriol and hate spewed at LeBron James in his first game back in Cleveland, or Vince Carter in his Toronto return, or Pat Riley when he came back to the Garden after leaving for Miami.

Karl on Kenyon

Nuggets coach George Karl is happy Martin is back in the NBA, and didn't enjoy seeing him out of work before the Knicks picked him up.

"Kenyon is misinterpreted in a lot of ways," Karl said. "Kenyon has a lot of professionalism to him. He knows the right stuff. He knows the right way. Sometimes he fights that way. I didn't like it. I thought the league was mean to him.

"Things are said that aren't true, innuendos brought forth and stories are written in painful ways. I'm glad he's back and hopefully he can get into shape and be a factor for the team in the playoffs."

Unhappy anniversary

Woodson began his Knicks' coaching career March 14, 2012 with a 42-point win at the Garden over the Blazers. On his anniversary, the Knicks lost by 15 in Portland.

The Knicks starting five in his first game was Jeremy Lin, Landry Fields, Chandler, Anthony and Stoudemire. On Woodson's anniversary, injuries forced him to start Felton, Iman Shumpert, Kurt Thomas, Chris Copeland and Martin.

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