BY CHAYIM TAUBER
OJ captivated the country by leading the police on a high-speed chase, Baseball was about to go on strike, and the New York Knicks won the division title en route to an NBA Finals appearance.
For the first time since, the New York Knicks have once again conquered their division in hopes of replicating (or surpassing if you dare,) the results of that magical season. In that vein, the celebration following the clinching of their first Atlantic Division crown in 19 seasons was understated to say the least.
“It means we are headed in the right direction,” said Coach Woodson about securing the Atlantic Division crown after a romp over the Washington Bullet at the Garden on April 9. “When you set goals and accomplish them it means a lot.”
Soon after clinching the division, the Knicks also clinched the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference, hopefully putting them on a track to meet Miami in the Eastern Conference finals.
Every single Knicks to a tee, echoed the coaches sentiments regarding keeping their eyes on the prize and not being content.
When asked if the season can be considered a success after the team reaching their preseason goals of 50 wins and the division title, point guard Raymond Felton replied, “Not yet. It’s a success as it was one of our goals. We had a great year but it’s still not over, we have a bigger goal.”
In fact, the only indication that the Knicks had accomplished something special hung in their locker rooms in the form of T-shirts emblazoned with “Can’t Stop NY Knicks/2013 Division Champions.” The play of superstar Carmelo Anthony has been beyond the pale in April. After posting a string of 30, 40 and even 50-point games, Anthony earned a well-deserved rest the final two games of the season.
Last week, on the precipice of winning the division, Anthony said, “At halftime I said, listen, let’s try to get this game over with. Let’s get this game, get our division title, and get out of here.” He ended that game having posted a fifth consecutive 35 point game, making him the first Knick to accomplish that feat since newly minted Hall of Famer Bernard King back in 1984-85. He posted 36 more in the next game, before finally cooling off.
‘Melo’s shooting and the emergence of JR Smith as not just the premiere sixth man in the NBA but as a bona fide All Star has certainly helped carry a Knicks team that’s been ravaged by injuries. The division-clinching win was no exception as the two main storylines of the game were Anthony’s offensive explosion and yet another frontcourt player going down with an injury. The victim this time: Kenyon Martin.
Martin has been a complete revelation for the Knicks this season, GM Glen Grunwald’s biggest coup. The addition of Martin has added instant credibility and toughness to a team that was thought to be “soft.” He provides an intimidation factor that has been absent in the Knicks post since Anthony Mason and Charles Oakley were protecting the rim (not coincidentally, also the last time the Knicks won a division).
X-rays on Martin’s ankles were negative and he has been diagnosed with “a severe ankle sprain.” While his teammates are praying that Martin can recover in time for the postseason, neither the team nor Coach Woodson is willing to allow the injuries to become either an excuse or a distraction.
This Knicks team, more than any other in recent memory however, has prided itself on its “next-man-up” philosophy. That an anonymous 28-year-old rookie (Chris Copeland) or a 35-year-old free agent off the street (Kenyon Martin) could step in to a vacant role and contribute in a major way fits the Knicks mold. It’s been the motif of the Knicks season – “Next Man Up” has been the title track of the 2013 Knicks Tape.
That the Knicks have been this resourceful and resilient despite being the oldest and one of the least healthy teams in the league is a testament to this squad and to the job that Mike Woodson has done.
“It shows what kind of fight we have as a team,” said Felton. “We’re not gonna give up, we don’t give up. We believe in ourselves and we believe in each other.”
It’s paid off as the “Knicks Tape Tour” continues right into the playoffs and with an Atlantic Division crown under its belt.