Posted by Matt Moore
It has come to this.
A Monday game at the Garden, not nationally televised, against a team whose championship window seems just as shut as their own, though the home team has brighter hopes for the future while the visitors are left clinging to a relevance two years gone. After one of the biggest trades in a recent history full of huge trades, the New York Knicks face a must-win game against the Orlando Magic, the fourth seed in the East, in March, at home.
This is what it has come to.
The Knicks are in a position of desperation, losers of nine of their last ten, and six straight. Carmelo Anthony himself painted the picture clearly Monday morning, as our own Royce Young brought you earlier:
"We understand how important this game is for us," Anthony said at the Knicks' training center. "It's almost a must win for us. That mentality, that's something that I want to approach it, as a must-win game. We've been talking about that throughout the team."
Mr. Young himself asked the question of how a game which does not eliminate you from playoff contention can be a must-win, especially against a team as strong as the Magic (or relatively strong, as Ken Berger describes). Here's how. The Magic game for the Knicks represents their last chance to right the ship. There are a handful of games against lottery squad opponents before their final two games of the season, a back-to-back against the Bulls and Celtics which would be brutal if those two teams would be playing their starters, which they won't be, or trying, which they won't be. Seeds will be settled and if they're not, the Celtics or Bulls still won't be going all-out to obtain the top seed with four days till the second season begins. The Magic game, however, is a playoff opponent they could conceivably (but are unlikely to) see in the first round, a measuring stick if they can surmount a challenge to present themselves as worthy enough to be measured.
If the Knicks are going to make a step forward beyond just making the playoffs this season, the first thing is to stem the blood flow. Doing so against the Nets won't mean much. The emotional letdown of a loss to the Magic on top of all the other shortfalls against contenders (the Celtics) and non-contenders (like the Cavs, Bucks, and Bobcats) would be the final nail in the coffin. That phrase is used a lot, but consider that the Knicks have already had nails from those other teams slammed into the wood and the light is getting awfully narrow.
Oddly enough, the East Coast elite under the bright lights of the Garden have to take a strikingly Midwestern stance. They have to draw a line and hold it. There are other cliches you can throw out there about getting water out of the boat and things like that, but the reality is this: context is everything.
Going into the season, making the playoffs, even under .500 as a low seed with and underwhelming track record against elite teams would have been a huge step forward for the Knicks. It would have been legitimate progress towards the future they want to represent for themselves, that of a championship contender. But the Melo trade changed everything. It was a move for the future, that's absolutely true. The move wasn't made to win this season, but to build a core. However, it brought two stars and cost a metric ton of player assets. And somehow the Knicks have gotten worse. It's outperforming expectations you set in preseason and failing those you thought reasonable at the All-Star Break. Expectations aren't set in stone, they're fluid. The Bulls face different expectations for the postseason than they did at the All-Star Break, higher ones, and the Heat lower. The Knicks had low expectations which they are likely, but no longer assured, to reach, before the season. Now they have higher expectations that they have nearly no shot at reaching. Their best shot is to get hot at the end of the season and make some noise in the first round to build some excitement going forward.
That starts with a push, with a spark, with holding the line.
That starts with Orlando. Must-win games are considered ways to prevent an ending. For the Knicks, this is something that must be achieved to create a beginning.