Survival of the Fittest

This compacted season, with 66 games stuffed into 131 days thanks to that wonderfully productive lockout, has been equally unforgiving to every team in the NBA. The Knicks will host the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight for their 17th game in 28 days.

But just as March began with a rare reprieve, which saw just one game over a nine-day span (including the All-Star Break), the Knicks open April with a similar, and desperately needed, chance to catch their breath.

After tonight, the Knicks have just two games in seven days. Right before the frantic final stretch to finish the season, with 11 games in 18 days.

“We have Sunday and Monday to get right,” Carmelo Anthony said of the welcome rest that awaits the team.

First order of business is to get back on the winning track after Friday’s sluggish 100-90 loss in Atlanta. The Knicks came out of that game with even more injury concerns, as Melo said his strained groin flared up once again, Baron Davis‘ hamstring and calf are barking louder with every extra minute he plays and now Tyson Chandler revealed he, too, is dealing with pain in his groin.

“Just the time of year,” Chandler said. “So many games coming so fast, you’re going to have knick-knack things here and there.”

It’s generally an accepted reality that almost everyone at this point in the season is dealing with some kind of pain. Actually, if you’re not, it may mean you either aren’t playing for anything or aren’t playing hard enough. This is no time for self-pity or excuses.

But Jeremy Lin‘s ongoing “sore left knee” mystery is hardly knick-knack issue. In fact, the lack of clarity is creating an even greater cause for concern about the team’s starting point guard and one of their most clutch performers.

If anything, Lin’s continued absence — the team said it expects him to be ready for next week’s road trip to Indiana and Orlando — has a domino effect on Davis, who is already playing under a minutes cap not just because of his injuries, but because he is still recovering from a herniated disc injury that caused him to miss 10 months. Davis showed very little mobility and explosion in 24 minutes against Atlanta. He clearly wasn’t himself.

Mike Woodson can’t get Lin back soon enough, however the medical staff is waiting for Lin to declare his knee stable. What they don’t need down the stretch here, as they battle for a playoff spot — and, idealistically, positioning — are two point guards playing under physical limitations because of injuries. They also don’t need one of their most important players further damaging his knee, which could render him out for the rest of the season. So the motivation is to take the time now to get Lin as close to 100 percent as possible.

So with both point guards on the mend, the Knicks offense is back in crisis mode, which bears watching tonight against Cleveland. Injuries are a true test to a team’s depth and we’ll see it now more than ever. Woodson has talked recently about giving Toney Douglas — remember him? — a shot here but he has yet to go to him in meaningful minutes. Tonight may be Toney’s chance at redemption. But along with defense, Toney will have to show he can keep the ball moving on offense in order to be effective.

The ball movement was non-existent against the Hawks and it resulted in just 13 assists on 31 field goals made. It was evident in the lack of ball movement to find open shooters, which resulted in a great deal of one-on-one plays and some really poor shot selection.

Melo had a big night with 36 points and for the first three quarters was dominant as an inside-outside scorer. But once he felt a tweak in the groin muscle, he became mortal again. “It takes away my power,” he said of the injury.

The Knicks right now are powerless to their injury issues, just as they are to the demands of the schedule.

“We just got to get through it,” Melo said.

A break is coming. Lin should be back soon and it’s possible Jared Jeffries will return in time for the final stretch, as well.

Amar’e Stoudemire? How he responds to an epidural shot, which he received on Thursday, still remains to be seen. But all indications are that the best-case scenario for his possible return is likely in time for the playoffs.

The Knicks still have to get there first.

FIXINS

• Melo’s 36 point-performance was his first 30-plus output since Jan. 20, a personal span of 27 games. To put that in perspective, he had six 30-plus point performances in the first 14 games of the season.

• It has to be said: Mobb Deep was Mobb Sleep in Atlanta. The heralded Knicks bench, which has made huge contributions at both ends of the floor over the last two weeks, produced just 14 points for a collective 4 for 16 shooting from the field. J.R. Smith missed his first six shots and went 2-for-10 in the game. Steve Novak, one of the NBA’s deadliest sharpshooters, rarely touched the ball and had just two shots, which speaks volumes about the lack of ball movement on offense and the amount of attention the Hawks gave him on defense.

• Tonight is the 18th of 21 back-to-backs on the schedule. The Knicks are 7-10 in the second game so far this season.

• Cleveland comes to the Garden reeling with six straight losses, which has dropped them out of the race for the eighth spot. But they are a team that historically gives the Knicks trouble. In their last visit, Feb. 29, the Cavs built a 17-point first half lead and it took a huge third quarter, sparked by Tyson Chandler, to spur the Knicks to a 120-103 win. Curious to see how Woodson plays the matchups and if he puts Rookie of the Year candidate Kyrie Irving on Shumpert Island.

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Defense Lives at 21 Shump Street

Mike Woodson could only see what the rest of us saw: potential. But he couldn’t possibly know until the challenge was made and the demands were enforced. And now nine games into his tenure, he seems to believe he may be onto something.

Though the injuries to Amare Stoudemire, Jeremy Lin and Jared Jeffries has left this team depleted, Woodson is focusing on what he has, not what he doesn’t.

“If you watch this stretch we’ve had, it’s been our defense that has put us in this position,” Woodson said after Wednesday’s stunning 108-86 win over the Magic. “It’s been stifling the way we’ve been playing defense and rebounding the ball. And that’s what it’s going to take.

“When you talk about possibly winning the division, going deep in to the playoffs and putting yourself in position to win a title,” he continued, “you’re going to have to defend and rebound.”

This is what they’ve been up to since Woodson moved to the first chair on the bench. They’ve held every team to 100 points or less and have kept opponents under 90 points in seven of the nine games. Rebounding? They have out-rebounded their opponent in eight of the nine games. The one game they didn’t was the only loss, at Toronto.

They had been a solid rebounding team all season, but under Woodson they’ve improved even more. In nine games, the Knicks are averaging 46.7 rebounds per game, which is 4.1 more per game than their season average. Opponents, as a result, are getting 4.1 less, at 37.6 per game.

The Knicks are an imperfect team, but isn’t that what those of us who came after the championship era, and grew up in the 90s era, are used to? They have flaws and they have issues. But right now they have a resolve building within them, a toughness that seems to be a reflection of its coach. Sound familiar?

And it then there is the underrated center, Tyson Chandler, who, to paraphrase Royce da 5’9″, should be called the Anchor Man, because he holds down the ship.

“It’s contagious,” Steve Novak said of Chandler’s defensive intensity.

And then there’s this relentlessly aggressive perimeter defender, Iman Shumpert, who is quickly making a name for himself as a lock-down the way Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis did as a rookie. Did Jameer Nelson get stranded on Shumpert Island? Or maybe 21 Shump Street?

“I loved it,” Chandler said. “I told him after the game, we need that for the rest of the year. He completely changed the game.”

Woodson, who rarely refers to Shumpert by name but instead just “The Rook” (and the same goes for Josh Harrellson), agreed.

“He changes the game from the defensive standpoint,” Woodson said.

He chipped in some serious offense as well, with 25 points on 10 for 21 shooting, but he also grabbed seven rebounds. He and Baron Davis combined for 14 rebounds for the starting backcourt.

“We go out and try to rebound the ball every game,” Shumpert said. “If not, Tyson will be all over us.”

There’s your accountability. There’s why, with so many reasons being offered to the contrary, there’s reason to believe in this team.

PEDAL TO THE METTLE

Carmelo Anthony didn’t get much rest during the game. In an effort to keep his aching right groin muscle from tightening up, he went to a stationary bike by the Zamboni tunnel when he wasn’t in the game.

It seemed to work well in keeping his legs loose, too, as Melo appeared to finally rediscover that long-lost shooting touch with an explosive 12-point third quarter that saw him drill back-to-back three-pointers and set off a game-winning 21-0 run.

“I think I was more just trying to anticipate the pain,” he said a gritty performance of 25 points, six assists, five rebounds, a steal and a blocked shot in 26:19. “It is one of those things that hopefully goes away soon.”

The pain, yes. The shot? No.

But clearly he seems more comfortable working out of the low post at the power forward spot, inAmar’e Stoudemire‘s place. Woodson said he can get away with playing Melo there because there are very few teams that play a true big at that position.

FIXINS

• Baron Davis put up one of his most efficient performances of the season, despite being limited to 25:01 by order of the medical staff, which is carefully monitoring his usage to ensure his back issue isn’t compromised. Davis had 11 points, seven rebounds and six assists with just two turnovers.

• Chandler’s technical foul late in the second quarter was his 10th of the season. He actually earned his 10th on March 6 in Dallas, but that one was rescinded by the NBA. Chandler is now three away from an automatic one-game suspension.

• That incredible 21-0 explosion by the Knicks in the third quarter against Orlando happened to match the fourth-longest consecutive run of points in a game in franchise history. It was the most since Nov. 15, 2003, when the Knicks went on a franchise-record 24-0 run — also in the third quarter — against the Indiana Pacers. (Amazingly, the Knicks happened to lose that game, 95-94, after — who else? — Reggie Miller, had a big fourth quarter.

• Happy Birthday to the one-and-only Walt “Clyde” Frazier, the originator of Immortal Swag. Before or after Knicks games — or any other time — be sure to check out his new restaurant, Clyde’s Wine and Dine, on 38th Street and 10th Avenue. The menu alone is entertaining (and delicious), but the memorabilia in the place is vintage Knicks and Clyde.

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Respect the Shooters

Rick Pitino’s Knicks were the NBA’s original Bomb Squad. Trent Tucker, Johnny Newman, Gerald Wilkins and Mark Jackson launched 1,147 three-pointers, which smashed the NBA’s record and was by far the most in the league in 1988-89.

Stan Van Gundy’s Orlando Magic isn’t a bomb squad, they’re more like a firing squad. They circle the three-point line, offer the rim a cigarette and press the trigger a league-high 26.8 times. They make a league-high 10.3 of them at a rate of 38.4 percent, which is second-best in the league.

Though they have the indomitable Dwight Howard in the paint, it is their uncanny marksmanship that is the foundation of Orlando’s effective offense. And therein lies the challenge for the undermanned Knicks tonight at the Garden.

Once again, like it has been since Mike Woodson took over eight games ago, this will be about defense. While Woodson has seen the Knicks hold opponents to 80 or fewer points in three of their last four games and an overall average of 86 points per game, the Achilles Heel remains their defense of the three-point shot.

So consider this foreshadowing.

The Knicks are 23rd in the NBA in opponent three-point shooting, allowing 20.4 percent Under Woodson, they are yielding an even worse rate: 31.3 percent. This could be a lethal mix.

We saw on Monday how Mike Dunleavy came off the bench in the first half to light up the Knicks for five three-pointers on six attempts. We saw Jan. 16, when Orlando last came to the Garden, and Ryan Anderson buried 7 of 13 from beyond the arc for a career night at the Knicks’ expense.

Ben Gordon hit 4 of 8 from downtown in Saturday’s win over Detroit. Brandon Jennings was 4 of 7 on March 9 in Milwaukee. Paul Pierce, 4 of 7 on March 4, including the game-tying dagger. And, of course, who can forget Deron Williams’ 8 for 14 on Feb. 20.

You get the idea.

Orlando has two areas to exploit tonight: one is from the perimeter, where they know the Knicks have to stay to keep a hand up against Anderson (7.0 threes per game), Hedo Turkoglu (4.9), Jason Richardson (4.9), J.J. Redick (3.8) and Jameer Nelson (3.5).

The other is to go inside to Dwight early to try to get Tyson Chandler into foul trouble. With no size on the bench in the injury absences of Amar’e Stoudemire and Jared Jeffries, that is a critical area to watch. If the Knicks have to play small against Dwight, they’ll be forced to double-team. And that opens up the perimeter.

INJURY UPDATE

Jeremy Lin
 (sore right knee) is out of the lineup for tonight. It’ll be the second straight game he will miss with the focus on allowing his knee to recover from what he termed was wear and tear.

Meanwhile, Carmelo Anthony is listed as probable despite aggravating a strained right groin that caused him to miss seven games in February.

And the Knicks released the following statement updating Stoudemire’s situation in regards to the bulging disc in his lower back:

“Amar’e will return to New York from Miami, FL today after seeking a second opinion on a bulging disc of his lower back. Both doctors have agreed that he should undergo non-surgical treatment and rehabilitation, that will include an epidural. He is expected to be out for approximately 2-4 weeks.”

Two to four weeks takes us into the final week of the regular season or the playoffs. That would be the best-case scenario.

ORIGINAL MOBB DEEP 

ESPN New York‘s Jared Zwerling caught up with the hip hop duo Mobb Deep, which became the inspiration for the Knicks’ bench nickname. Sounds like they are thrilled to be part of it.

“I thought it was like a one-time thing,” Havoc told Zwerling, “but then I started hearing about it and people kept on telling me that they mentioned it on MSG every time they have a game.”

Now if we can only get Kelly Tripucka to give them a shout out . . .

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The Bucks Stop Here

In a stretch of tests and big games to finish out the regular season, here comes another critical one for the Knicks. They can accomplish several important tasks tonight with a win over the Milwaukee Bucks at the Garden:

1. Open up a 2 1/2 game lead for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East.

2. Keep the Bucks from clinching the season series, which would be the first tiebreaker if the teams finish with the same record

3. Get back to the .500 mark

With pictures of the Larry O’Brien Trophy over each stall in the Knicks locker room, the suggestion is that this team is looking for more than just getting into the playoffs.

“We’re trying to make a run,” Amar’e Stoudemire said, “and do something special.”

Stoudemire, however, who suffered tightness in his lower back on Saturday against the Pistons, did not participate in the morning shoot-around and is listed questionable for the game. It remains seen whether he will be able to go for tonight’s battle with the relentless Luc Mbah a Moute, Ekpe Udoh and Co.

Amar’e and the Knicks answered the bell last Wednesday in Philadelphia, with a slugfest against the Atlantic Division-leading 76ers that allowed the Knicks to stay in contention for the division title. Tonight expects to be another grinder against a Bucks team that is coming off a blowout loss at home against the Pacers, but comes in with the confidence of knowing they have won four straight over the Knicks and 10 of the last 12 meetings.

Yes, the Bucks have owned — pwned, as the gamers type — the Knicks over the last five-plus seasons. Under Scott Skiles, Milwaukee hasn’t been a team loaded with talent, but they play very hard and too often in the recent past they have simply played harder than the Knicks. Under Mike Woodson, the Knicks have played a lot harder, especially on defense.

The Bucks are in the top five in team assists (23.4 per game) and turn the ball over just 13.9 times per game, which is among the lowest rates in the NBA. The Knicks, on the other hand, are the league’s best at forcing turnovers (17.3 per game) and are in the top 10 in limiting opponent assists (19.3 per game).

Keep in mind that the Bucks are also top five in forcing turnovers (15.8), while the Knicks (16.5) have the second-highest turnover rate in the NBA. That’s an issue Woodson on Saturday called “just ridiculous” and intended to discuss with the main culprits, point guards Jeremy Lin and Baron Davis.

Brandon Jennings, still jaded by the Knicks’ decision to pass on him in the 2009 NBA Draft, averages 20.7 points per game in his career against the Knicks. He is now joined in an explosive backcourt by Monta Ellis, who has averaged 21.8 points per game in his career against the Knicks. The starting backcourt of Lin and Landry Fields have a major challenge on their hands and we could see a lot of rookie Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith for defensive purposes in this one.

At this point of the season, the Knicks need all hands on deck.

“That’s a real big game for us,” said Carmelo Anthony, who will get another healthy dose of his nemeses, Ersan Ilyasova and Carlos Delfino. “Going up against them, fighting for that eighth spot . . . We need that game. We’re going to do everything in our power to get that game.”

BRING THE PAIN

    • Stoudemire’s back stiffness is a serious concern, considering the pulled muscle in his back that hampered him in last season’s playoffs (and limited him most of the offseason). After Saturday’s game, Stoudemire said he was fine and that it just stiffened up. He said he’d be ready to play against the Bucks, but the fact that he did not take part in the morning shoot-around and is listed as questionable for the game is alarming. He was just starting to get the “pop” back in his legs and had been very effective over the last two weeks.

 

    • Lin’s sore right knee, which also saw him leave the bench for a brief stint in the second half on Saturday, also said he did not expect it be an issue tonight against Milwaukee. However, he, too, is listed as questionable, though he did participate in the shoot-around.

 

  • Ellis, who scored just 11 points in the loss to the Pacers, suffered an injury to his finger and did not play in the fourth quarter. But there have been no indications that he would not be available tonight against the Knicks.

I GET VISUAL

The pictures of the Larry O’Brien Trophy were meant to be a visual motivation for the Knicks, to keep the team focused on a common goal. But while it’s an exercise that looks good from the outside, what matters most is the belief from the inside.

And without question that belief begins with the star players and leaders.

Bucks center Drew Gooden recalled the 2006-07 season when he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers and how LeBron James one day decided in the huddle that the new mantra would be “1, 2, 3 . . . Championship!”

“And I was looking around like, ‘You really think we can win a championship with this team?” Gooden said to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“The next thing I know, it’s late June and we’re playing against the San Antonio Spurs in the Finals,” he then added.

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“Make Sure This Don’t Linger”

Mike Woodson had no explanation for why his team was flat on Friday night in Toronto.

“Bad coaching,” he said. “That’s what I called it.”

Good coaching, however, came afterward when he immediately addressed the team after that 96-79 loss to the Raptors.

“We’ve got to make sure this don’t linger,” Woodson told them.

The Knicks could barely afford to chalk this one up to just a bad shooting night. No, not at this point of the season. Not with the Milwaukee Bucks nipping at their heels while they’re still hanging in the Atlantic Division race.

And if this group really wants to prove that they’ve turned a new leaf since Mike D’Antoni’s departure and the mission to turn this season into something special is legit, they go into tonight’s game against the Detroit Pistons with purpose. We’ve seen this team let one bad loss turn into six straight as they wallow in self-pity.

Woodson had a front row seat to it, which is why he spoke up. No one expected the Knicks to run the table, so losses and bad nights were going to come. Right now, in the evolution of this team, it’s not as much about what just happened as it is about what happens next.

“It’s very important we get the game,” Chandler said of tonight’s game against the Pistons. “We’ve got to come out with great energy.”

Amar’e Stoudemire added, “We’re playing for something here. We’ve got to take that kind of mentality into every game.”

And the games get tougher again after this brief run of sub-.500 teams. After tonight, the Knicks face a crucial game against the Bucks at the Garden, then have dates with the Magic, Hawks, Cavs, Pacers, Magic again, plus a home-and-home with the Bulls and then, yep, another meeting with the Bucks.

We’re about to learn what this team is really about over the next three weeks. Are they resilient? Or are they the same old front-running Knicks we’ve seen all season?

“We’ve got to bounce back,” Woodson said. “We’re playing at home, in front of our fans, and we’ve got to go home and win a game.”

As they say, it’s Winnin’ Time.

THE INTERNATIONAL ZONE COASTER

Raptors coach Dwane Casey employed a strategy that the former Dallas Mavericks assistant coach knew helped beat the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals and it put the Knicks on lockdown on Friday night.

The Raptors packed into a zone defense and the Knicks spent the night tossing bricks at the Air Canada Centre rims.

“It’s pretty much the same zone,” said Chandler, who was a big part of that strategy for the Mavs last spring. “It’s designed to force you to take jump shots and we fell into the trap, honestly.”

The Knicks scored 42 points in the paint, but took 28 three-pointers. They made just five — all by Steve Novak — and shot an anemic 37.6 percent from the field. This shouldn’t be a surprise because the Knicks have been in the bottom third of the NBA in shooting all season.

Jeremy Lin didn’t attack the zone with dribble penetration. The few times he did, he was quickly trapped and was neutralized. Baron Davis was equally inept. The zone countered the pick-and-roll and the Knicks inability to stretch the defense by making open perimeter shots was a recipe for disaster.

And, yes, you can expect that scouts have taken notice.

“There are going to be other teams that play zone,” Woodson said. “We’ve just got to execute and make plays against it.”

MISSING MELO

Carmelo Anthony‘s shot is officially lost. But after his 6-for-15 performance in Toronto, he said it was his rhythm that is missing.

“I’m looking for it,” he said. “So if anybody finds it, tell me.”

He said he remains confident in his shot and believes it’s only a matter of time before he gets it back. Slumps happen, but what Melo is going through has been almost a season-long issue and now it’s impacting an area of his game that used to be such a big part of his offense: free throw shooting.

His strong moves to the basket and quick release have always resulted in him getting to the line at a regular basis. He averages 6.3 free throw attempts per game and is an 80 percent shooter from the line in his career. Easy money.

Now consider this: Carmelo did not attempt a free throw against Toronto and was 0-for-1 against the 76ers. It was the first time in his career that he went consecutive games without making a free throw.

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Nostalgic Nirvana

I found it hard, it’s hard to find,
Oh well, whatever, Nevermind . . .

Was anyone else feeling nostalgic last night? Was anyone else hearing grunge chords in their heads and itching for an all-night tournament of NBA Live on a Sega Genesis?

Was anyone else peering at the Knicks bench looking for a short, balding man in a rumpled suit?

This 82-79 win in Philadelphia was a better throwback than any replica jersey could pretend to be. All that was missing was John Starks head-butting someone on the other team.

As for the workhorse putting the game away at the foul line in the fourth quarter, images of Patrick Ewing morphed into Jeremy Lin.

And as they shouted a jubilant “How ’bout those Knicks?!” — even more ’90s nostalgia, calling to mind Jimmy Johnson’s “How ’bout them Cowboys?!” — from the visitors locker room at the Wells Fargo Center, the topic of discussion was an element that laid the foundation of past eras of greatness.

And it made me wonder: Has this team finally found its identity?

“It was our defense that kept grinding,” Mike Woodson said, “and eventually won us the game.”

Let’s table the discussion about why, because it’s quite obvious at this point. A coaching change shook up the bottle and all Woodson had to do was twist the cap.

“I’m not surprised because I’ve always seen it in this team and we’ve had stretches when we’ve looked like this,” Tyson Chandler said of this five-game winning streak, which includes three wins over teams with winning records and two of them on the road.

And then there’s that old friend, Defense, who has returned as the guest of honor. On its arm is the beautiful thing known as Hope.

“When we play defense like this, we can beat any team in the league,” Chandler said.

It’s a belief that was absent earlier in the season. The Knicks were notorious frontrunners, but could not wear the label of resilient. This is why Woodson, who had a front row seat as the top assistant, remained skeptical after blowout wins to begin his tenure. But then came an impressive road win to sweep a challenging back-to-back, home-and-home with the Indiana Pacers.

After beating the hard-working 76ers in a crucial Atlantic Division game, Woodson’s eyes were wide.

“I’ve learned that our guys are not going to buckle,” Woodson said. “They’re going to continue to stay strong and keep pushing.

“I honestly believe they think they can win every game now when they step out on the floor. I know it’s still early, we’ve got to take it a game-at-a-time. I’ve got to keep pushing, my staff and I, for them to continue to play at this level.”

The defense, which has held teams to 86.6 points per game since Woodson took over, was absolutely stifling to start the game, as the 76ers missed their first 14 shots from the field. They struggled to get into their halfcourt sets against the Knicks pressure.

“I love the way we came out for this game,” Chandler.

The finish was equally impressive, as Lin overcame a poor shooting start (missed 10 of his first 11) to pour in 16 points in the fourth quarter and hit 10-of-10 from the line, while the Knicks defense clamped down again. Andre Iguodala blew a fast break layup with 2:02 left that could have cut the Knick lead to 74-73. Credit Carmelo Anthony for hustling back — 10 days prior he let Iguodala escape for a pair of fast-break dunks with little effort to chase — and disrupting Iggy’s attempt.

Anthony also snared a big rebound off a three-point miss by Lou Williams with 33.9 seconds left and the Knicks protecting a five-point lead.

“This is a great character-building win for us,” Melo said.

One could say that, for some, this entire stretch has been about character building.

And perhaps this team has finally found its identity.

RETURN OF THE MACK

For most of this season, Amar’e Stoudemire‘s notorious “immortal swag” had been mortalized. But at the All-Star break he did reveal changes he was making to shed some muscle weight and get the pop back into his legs. He suggested we all “stay tuned.”

Against Elton Brand and the 76ers, Stoudemire’s show went from a sitcom back to an action thriller.

“My rhythm’s back, my strength is back, my timing’s back,” Stoudemire said after he had 21 points, with several monster dunks and strong drives. “I’ve been off the whole offseason, rehabbing my back and not playing contact basketball for six months. That’s the most I’ve ever been away from the game. Ever. Since I was a little kid. I feel great now.”

Perhaps the most impressive play of the night wasn’t his above-the-rim work on offense, but a play on defense that put his athleticism on display. With 4:12 left in the game and the Knicks holding a six-point lead, Stoudemire chased down Brand and spiked a dunk attempt at the rim.

“I saw him trying to outrun me there and he had a step on me,” Stoudemire said. “So I tried to catch him and block his shot from the back. That was a big, big block for us.”

Brand usually gives Stoudemire a tough game, mainly because of his power and mid-range ability. He had 10 points and 10 rebounds at the half, but Stoudemire held him scoreless in the second half.

“I wanted to take on the challenge of guarding him in the second half and put an end to his scoring,” Stoudemire said, “and I was successful doing that.”

This is when you know Stoudemire is locked in. He’s always been able to provide offense, but it has been the other end of the floor where Amar’e has struggled, especially in pick-and-roll defense. Chandler’s presence has been a major help in covering many of his mistakes, but the effort continues to be made in helping Stoudemire improve as a defensive player.

“He’s also starting to key in defensively in what we’re trying to do out there,” Chandler said. “He looks a lot more comfortable right now.”

M.I.A.: MELO’S SHOT

While Stoudemire seems to be finding his groove, the Knicks are still waiting to see Carmelo return to form. He struggled once again with his shot (5-for-15) and had just 10 points and is now shooting 38.8 percent from the field during this five-game winning streak.

A lot has been made of Melo’s vastly improved effort level on defense since the coaching change and he continues to make great passes. But this guy is a scorer. It is alarming how much he is struggling to do the one part of his game that is supposed to be a strength.

“I’m not concerned about my shot or anything like that,” he said after the game. “I’m just trying to do the little things to help us win.”

The talk of Mike D’Antoni’s departure leading to an offense centered around Anthony was completely wrong. Since Woodson took over, Melo is averaging 13.4 field goal attempts per game — his season average is 17.6 FGA per game — and scoring just 14.2 points per game. He is averaging 5.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game, however, in that stretch.

The shooting touch is the main issue and it has even impacted him at the foul line, where he is 14 for 23 (60.9 percent) in the last five games. He is an 80 percent shooter from the line in his career.

Is it a residual effect of offseason surgery on his elbow? Or a lingering effect of the wrist sprain he suffered early in the season?

“I don’t know,” he said. “As far as my wrist, I don’t feel anything. Maybe it’s something minor, but I don’t really feel anything.”

WOODSON IN GOOD COMPANY

Woodson’s connection to the franchise’s greatest coach, Red Holzman, goes back to his rookie season with the Knicks in 1980, when Holzman was in his second stint running the bench. Now Woodson has another connection to Red, as he matched the best start after a coaching change — and as we all know there have been many — in franchise history.

Woodson’s five straight wins equaled Holzman’s 5-0 record after he took over in early in the 1978-79 season for Willis Reed, who was fired after an 8-9 start (and when new leadership in the Madison Square Garden hierarchy wanted a change).

Holzman’s team didn’t finish the season strong, as they sputtered to a 31-51 finish. But by the 1980-81 season, he had the Knicks winning again with a 50-32 record. On that very young, exciting team, which featured Bill Cartwright, Ray Williams and Michael Ray Richardson, Woodson appeared in 81 games that season off the bench and averaged 4.7 points in 11.7 minutes per game.

After the season, Woodson was traded to the Nets for Mike Newlin, as the Knicks front office tried to bring in veteran scoring. The team also passed on signing Williams and acquired Maurice Lucas instead, then added injury-plagued veteran Paul Westphal. The Knicks lost whatever juice they built the year before and went 33-49. Holzman retired from coaching after that season.

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The Knicks Are Back?

Frank Vogel provided nothing for the bulletin board the way Danny Granger did. The Indiana Pacers coach was complimentary of the Knicks after blowing his team out Friday night at Madison Square Garden.

“This is an extremely talented team, maybe one of the most talented teams in the NBA,” Vogel said. “And they’re playing with a renewed sense of urgency because of the coaching change, like all teams do with coaching changes.

“They’re a force right now,” he then added.

With two dominant wins since Mike D’Antoni’s departure, the Knicks remain an unpredictable entity. No one with any clue about basketball believed they were as bad as they were during most of the six game losing streak. But are they as good as they have looked — especially on defense — in these last two games?

Tonight’s finale in the home-and-home, back-to-back with the Pacers will be yet another test, one interim coach Mike Woodson called “an important game.” Woodson is trying to get the Knicks’ into a playoff mentality right now as they battle with the Mikwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff standings.

“When you play teams back-to-back,” he said, “you have to play it like a playoff game.”

It begs the question: where was this mentality two weeks ago, when the Knicks gave away a three-game cushion for that final spot — and were within reach of first place in the Atlantic Division? Was it really a matter of changing voices?

“We got our focus back,” Tyson Chandler said. “We are coming with a sense of urgency.”

That urgency, as Kelly Tripucka pointed out on the Post Game Show, is that there is no one left to blame if the team continued to downspiral after D’Antoni left. All of the focus is now on the players, so it’s up to them to give an honest effort every game and play to their potential.

“That losing streak was an eye-opener for us,” Steve Novak said. “When you’re losing, you feel like you’re doing everything wrong. We just don’t want to go back to losing like that.”

It started with defense. Woodson has the Knicks playing extremely aggressive and trapping high. In two dominant first quarters against the Trail Blazers and Pacers, neither team was ever allowed to comfortably get into their sets. The energy generated by the defense has fed the offense.

And at that end of the floor, not much has changed: the emphasis remains on sharing the ball. The Knicks scored 115 points against Indiana, but they didn’t have a single player score 20 points.

There is still a long way to go. At 20-24, this is still a team below .500 and still with very little room for error in the final 22 games.

“As a unit,” Carmelo Anthony said, “we know our time is now.”

ACCOUNTABILITY IN FULL VIEW

The Trail Blazers were upset with the Knicks for showboating late in the 42-point win on Wednesday and there were signs of more unnecessary styling as the game against Indiana reached a 30-point lead. J.R. Smith caught an alley-oop from Mike Bibby that he not only threw down reverse, but then hung on the rim for added impact. Smith was called for a technical foul.

He was then summoned to the principal’s office, as Woodson pulled him from the game and met him on the sideline for a brief chat. Reading his lips, Woodson said to Smith, “This is what we talked about,” and went on to remind him about playing the right way.

Afterward, Woodson told the media that the discussion would remain private, as it should, but it was important for fans — and teammates — to see Woodson publicly address Smith in the moment.

“If you’re sincere about what you want to get accomplished as a player you’ll figure it out and it’s my job to make you figure it out,” Woodson said. “I’m big on details. I struggle with players that don’t play hard. That’s one thing that I’ve got to hold these guys accountable to do, is to play hard every night.”

BARON OUT

Baron Davis suffered a strained right hamstring in the first half and did not return to the game. According to MSG Network’s Knicks reporter Tina Cervasio, Baron did not make the trip to Indiana and hopes to be ready by Wednesday’s game against the 76ers.

Woodson used rookie Iman Shumpert in a three-guard rotation with Smith and Jeremy Lin in the second half and will likely stick with that plan. Could this open up an opportunity for Toney Douglas? The third-year guard has been buried on the bench since early February.

But Douglas won’t be available in Indiana because he remains away from the team to celebrate the birth of his son, according to ESPN New York’s Jared Zwerling. Douglas is expected back for practice on Monday and should be in the lineup Tuesday against the Raptors.

ADDITIONS TO THE COACHING STAFF

When Mike D’Antoni left, his brother, Dan, and another longtime assistant, Phil Weber, went with him. It left Woodson with just two assistants: Herb Williams and Kenny Atkinson. But Woodson said on Friday that he will add to his staff two more assistants, who are expected to be with the team this weekend.

Woodson will bring in Darrell Walker, a former Knick, and longtime NBA assistant Jim Todd.

Also joining the entourage will be Woodson’s personal mentor, Bill Smith, who was his coach at Broad Ripple High in Indianapolis all those years ago. Smith, Woodson said, is “kind of my confidant” and the two worked together when Woodson was head coach of the Atlanta Hawks.

“He’ll sit with me and share ideas,” Woodson said, “and be my eyes and ears.”

LUCK OF THE IRISH?

The Knicks, who were founded, fittingly, by a man named Ned Irish, will wear their green uniforms to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

Some memorable St. Patrick’s Day performances:

1994: Knicks defeat the Bucks 105-83 at the Garden for an eighth-straight game in which they held an opponent under 90 points. It tied an NBA shot clock-era record set by the Syracuse Nationals in 1954-55.

1998: With just nine players in uniform because of injuries, the Knicks beat the 76ers, 100-96, at the Garden behind 31 points from Allan Houston. Anthony Bowie, in his first start, had 10 points and five rebounds.

2006: Jamal Crawford drilled a jumper with 2.2 seconds left to cap a comeback for a 105-103 win over the Detroit Pistons at the Garden.

2011: Toney Douglas tied a franchise record with nine three-pointers as the Knicks set a franchise record with 20 threes in a 120-99 win over the Memphis Grizzlies at the Garden.

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Melo, Knicks Point Forward

Tip-off wasn’t for another hour and Carmelo Anthony knew he had already won. These are the power struggles that exist in pro sports, these are the ugly truths that some, even with years of exposure to it, seem so stunned when it comes to light.

In case anyone was mistaken, this is Melo’s team and that much was emphasized by the sudden departure of Mike D’Antoni on Wednesday afternoon. The coach, in the final season of his contract, knew he was not properly equipped to challenge the star as the two hit an impasse that not only created an impasse between them, but started to fracture the team.

Tyson Chandler, ever the locker room leader, tried to create cover when he said Anthony was being unfairly singled out in the wake of D’Antoni’s move. “He’s been getting a lot of the brunt, but I don’t think it’s rightfully so,” Chandler said. “We all react differently to losing.”

And while Melo also attempted to dismiss any issues — “There’s no bad blood between myself and Mike D’Antoni” — or accept any blame, Amar’e Stoudemire didn’t bother with the spin cycle. He just hung it all out to dry.

“I think he was frustrated from the fact that not everyone was buying into his system,” Stoudemire said of D’Antoni. “It made him look bad. So stepping down was the best way for him.”

Fact is there were unhappy players in the Knicks locker room before the 121-79 win over a Portland Trail Blazers team that seems to have also quit on its coach. But to interim coach Mike Woodson‘s credit, he got the mood up with a pregame speech and then left the rest to Carmelo, who knows now that it’s on him to show he was right to demand the offense run through him, with his style of play. It also helped that the lifeless Trail Blazers were in town.

D’Antoni’s system, which is a pick-and-roll offense predicated on ball movement, spacing and pace, may have been fun to watch while Jeremy Lin was the featured player, but Melo never found it appealing.

“I had to sacrifice,” he said.

Despite his disenchantment in recent weeks, he did give it an honest effort early in the season, when he was asked to play a point-forward role in the absence of a true point guard. But as the team struggled early, Melo gravitated back to the style he knew, to the game he trusted: His own.

Perhaps he’s not lying about there being “no bad blood” between himself and D’Antoni. The reason being is neither man would personally confront the other. They are, actually, very similar personalities, with a high-level of competitiveness mixed with stubbornness masked by an aloof, passive-aggressiveness.

Despite what experts predicted, I was naïve enough to believe — and still do — that Melo could have thrived in D’Antoni’s system. It wasn’t about system or shot selection or even sulking on defense after not getting the ball. The issue between Melo and D’Antoni was a simple missing element that caused the whole thing to cave in: Accountability.

Melo needs to be coached. He needs to be challenged. And, yes, he needs to be motivated. If it is to be said that D’Antoni failed as Knicks coach, this is where he failed.

And this is the only area Woodson needs to succeed. He seems to be well aware of it, because he talked a great deal about it before and after the game.

“I’m going to be held accountable,” he said, “and I’m going to make damn sure that they’re all held accountable, to win.”

WHAT NOW?

Woodson held his first practice as head coach with the team on Thursday. Though he said he will look to run the offense through Anthony and Stoudemire and utilize Melo’s post-up talent, it’s hard to believe he will be able to make dramatic changes to the offense this late in the season.

One issue to watch involves the usage of Lin, who had the ball a lot with D’Antoni but may play off the ball much more. That doesn’t mean he can’t be effective, but his shot volume is likely to go down.

Lin played just 22:51 (no starter played more than 27 minutes) and attempted just four shots. He finished with six points and six assists with four rebounds and two steals. One area that remained consistent: Turnovers. He had six.

APPLICATIONS ACCEPTED

With Woodson filing in on an interim basis, the list of candidates to become the next Knicks head coach is already being compiled in the media. Here are some of our suggestions:

1. Phil Jackson — the obvious candidate who has been linked to this franchise since 1999 but has yet to take the challenge. Would the former Knick finally come home to bring his pro career full circle? Would hiring a 70-year-old coach make sense for this franchise? Does it make sense for him? He does have 11 rings and an unmistakable presence that will command instant respect. Plus, if Melo wants to be like Kobe, he’ll want to play for Kobe’s coach.

2. Jeff Van Gundy — there is still some unfinished business for the second-most popular coach in franchise history after he left the team just 19 games into the 2001-02 season. Ten years later, have the wounds healed? Has all of the elements to succeed, starting with intensity, accountability and tireless preparation. He also knows how to handle the New York media. He got the most out of Tracy McGrady and Van Gundy has routinely praised Melo during his broadcasts on ABC/ESPN. Amar’e could become his Larry Johnson.

3. Scott Skiles — could decide to leave Milwaukee after this season to pursue other opportunities. One of the smartest coaches in the NBA who doesn’t get nearly enough credit for getting teams to overachieve. His teams’ execution coming out of timeouts are generally flawless. Tough, blue collar approach would be welcomed in New York. Fiery personality who could be Knicks’ version of John Tortorella, which might make me wish I was back on the beat.

4. Jerry Sloan — there is word that he may have the itch to get back into coaching after his surprising departure from the Utah Jazz last season after a fallout with Deron Williams (hmm, sound familiar?). A terrific gentleman and tough, demanding coach. But would that work with Melo? And, at his age, how would he deal with the daily intensity from the New York media?

5. John Calipari — he already posted to Twitter that he plans on staying at the University of Kentucky through next season, which was a pre-emptive strike to quell concerns from his incoming recruiting class. But there’s no denying Cal as a possible candidate. If the Knicks call, he’d have to listen.

Wild Card: Woodson — he had success with the Atlanta Hawks and there is plenty of talent here for him to work with. All he needs to do is maintain a standard and hold the stars accountable to it. A strong playoff run could earn him the job.

WINNING UGLY 

The Blazers have their own problems which have Nate McMillan on the hot seat, but they were annoyed with how the Knicks reserves were showboating late in the 42-point win. As the game reached garbage time and the Knicks lead swelled over the 30-point mark, they continued to bomb away from three-point range and toss alley-oops, which may have delighted the crowd, but was viewed as poor sportsmanship.

Most of the Knicks regulars were on the bench during the perceived showboating, which involved rookie Iman Shumpert throwing down a windmill dunk and J.R. SmithSteve Novak andJosh Harrellson hoisting threes early in the shot clock.

“This [stuff] tonight was embarrassing, it was hurtful,” Portland forward Gerald Wallace told reporters afterward. “And it was frustrating as [heck]. They’re throwing lobs and they’re up 40.”

There were no words exchanged after the game as the teams crossed the Garden court to get to their respective locker rooms. There is some thought to the fact that the Blazers seemed to spark something in what was already a blowout when Marcus Camby was called for a flagrant foul on a very dangerous hit against a driving Landry Fields, who fell hard into the first row and was lucky to avoid injury.

JARED’S RETURN

The Garden crowd gave a nice ovation when Jared Jeffries, who missed the last four games with a knee injury, checked into the game. The intangibles player, who has consistently been an effective worker in every game this season, said after the game he owed so much of what he’s become to D’Antoni. “That was big for me,” he said, “that I had a chance to play for a coach I really admired be so positive about me playing the right way.”

SHOTS FIRED!

The Knicks have a tough back-to-back, home-and-home this weekend with the Indiana Pacers,starting Friday at the Garden. It will be a good test to see if the Knicks can shake out of their doldrums from the six-game losing streak and get back on track.

The Pacers apparently feel like it’ll be a good chance for two wins. At least that’s how Danny Granger views it.

“We have two games against New York,” he said after Wednesday’s win over the 76ers. “Very winnable games.”

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Where Has the Swagger Gone?

The clichés come easy after games like this. Some pro athletes have mastered the art of feigning sagacity, but really what you never want to do is look like you are an expert at losing.

So what Amar’e Stoudemire should be doing is looking exasperated. Carmelo Anthony should be furious. Neither one of them have much experience in losing before they came to New York, so it’s strange that they seem so comfortable right now as the Knicks appear to be back in another freefall after a fourth straight loss — and seventh in 10 games — following the 119-114 defeat in Milwaukee on Friday night.

After watching this 0-4 road trip, which included three losses that saw late rallies fall painfully short, the most maddening result is how impressive this team can be in closing large deficits in a hurry. And it leaves you wondering why that urgency doesn’t exist for 48 minutes, the way it seems to exist with the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and, for the most part, the Chicago Bulls.

Where is the determination to be more than just mediocre? Where is the drive to win games, climb the standings and back up that talk of being a championship contender?

Where is the killer instinct to want to bury inferior teams, especially those that dare to come at you as if they have enough game to compete?

Where is that swagger?

Where were Stoudemire and Anthony when Drew Gooden — Drew Gooden! — out-jumped both of them to a Brandon Jennings airball and tips it to an unchecked Ersan Ilyasova for a back-breaking put-back to give the Bucks a 116-113 lead with 28.7 seconds left?

After a game that saw Melo score 22 points on 7-for-17 shooting, the Knicks’ star correctly pointed to the fact that the team exerts so much energy battling back from large deficits “and then you have to dig deeper and try to find a little more energy to win. It seems right now we don’t have that energy to win basketball games.”

How can that even happen?

You can fail to have the talent to win. You can even not have enough luck to win. But energy? Isn’t that a product of will? Isn’t that the most critical element of winning?

Yes, it is. Tyson Chandler, who is emerging as the true leader of this team, proved it at halftime of that game against the Cavaliers on Feb. 29. The Knicks opened with an awful half and played with little energy and Chandler let his teammates hear it in the locker room. He then played a ferocious third quarter, loaded with sweat, grit and floor burns and the Knicks ran away with the win.

Without him over the last three games, that element has been noticeably absent. No one stepped forward to provide that impetus on the defensive end and as a result, the Knicks looked lifeless. At least until the threat of losing became real. Then suddenly the fire was lit, but it was always too little, too late.

And when it was over, it was alarmingly acceptable in the voices of the team’s leadership.

Mike D’Antoni offered a telling perspective when he discussed the need for “consistent energy” and to “defend harder” and to play with “a desperation about us that we need to get into the playoffs.”

Those are the three components the Knicks really needed to develop during that minicamp week they had after the All-Star break. But how the heck do you practice emotion and determination?

“Sometimes we focus on things that are not important,” D’Antoni said, “and offense is not important, because it will come.”

In other words, forget about your shot totals, your point totals and your minutes. Make an impact on the game in any way you can, including the defensive end (And for Heaven’s sake, when Tony Parker is sprinting by you for the umpteenth time on the pick-and-roll, throw a forearm into his ribcage one time, just to show you actually do care that he’s been running a layup line against your team all night).

Forget everything you have read during this losing streak in regards to chemistry and systems. Put away the trade machine and your whiteboards. The Knicks’ problems are not at all tangible. The issues aren’t about talent, lineups or rotations.

This is simply about heart, will and want.

The remedy is simple, but the cure is up to the patient.

POINT GUARD DUET HAS PROMISE

Speaking of energy, Baron Davis played with a great deal of it, especially in leading the Knicks in that fourth quarter rally. Davis finished with nine points, nine assists and five rebounds in 30:51 off the bench. For a long stretch, he started looking like the classic Baron Davis with strong dribble drives to the basket and excellent passes.

“At least I found my fire,” Davis said. “I was able to find my fire and do some things out there.”

What still remains for Davis is to find his shooting touch. He broke an 0-for-11 streak from three-point range over a three-game span when he drilled a three early in the fourth.

Davis paired with Jeremy Lin for a large block of the second half and the tandem had success in the small-ball laden game.

Meanwhile, reports of Lin’s demise have been grossly exaggerated. He had a strong game against Brandon Jennings, with 20 points, 13 assists, 4 steals and five turnovers in 41 minutes. He finished the game a team-high plus-13.

TRADE WINDS STARTING TO BLOW

With the trade deadline approaching Thursday, the rumor mill is churning at ludicrous speed. After years of being extremely busy around this time of year, the sense I’m getting is that the Knicks are not expected to be active. The franchise is at a point right now where the days of roster turnover and constant transition are over and the current group — and coaching staff — are being given time to develop.

But other teams are expected to be extremely busy, starting with the Portland Trail Blazers, who will be at the Garden on Wednesday, a day before the deadline. Former Knick Raymond Felton, who has clashed with demanding coach Nate McMillan, is firmly on the block. Another former Knick,Jamal Crawford, could also be on the move, which is interesting, since Crawford turned down a smaller offer to sign with the Knicks to play for the Trail Blazers.

Other very active teams will be the Washington Wizards, who would love to unload Andray Blatche, a target of the few fans who actually do show up at the Verizon Center these days. JaVale McGeehas also been shopped around, as GM Ernie Grunfeld searches for a veteran big man who can provide a needed presence in the locker room and play pick-and-roll with the franchise’s most valuable piece, John Wall.

There’s talk that the Milwaukee Bucks may move oft-injured center Andrew Bogut, while Scott Skiles would give anything to see the team dump the troublesome Stephen Jackson.

As for the Charlotte Bobcats, word is just about anyone — Boris DiawTyrus Thomas, etc. — could be had. The issue Michael Jordan‘s team faces is there aren’t many players on that roster anyone wants.

Ken Berger of CBSSports.com reported that the Houston Rockets are aggressively pursuing Pau Gasol, who, amazingly, could be traded by Thursday. Well-known Lakers insider Roland Lazenby reported on Friday that Gasol was on the verge of being traded.

Though Dwight Howard has been the biggest name in the gossip this season, the indications I’m getting from NBA executives suggest that the Orlando Magic will not deal him. The franchise believes they have the best chance to re-sign him and at worst they’ll gain a great deal of salary cap space to rebuild. The Cleveland Cavaliers, thanks to the No. 1 pick that landed them Rookie of the Year favorite Kyrie Irving, have made a relatively quick recovery in the wake of LeBron James‘ departure.

If Howard remains in Orlando through the deadline, that leaves the Nets in limbo as well with Deron Williams. As we reported on the pregame Fix earlier this season, the Magic are not at all interested in Brook Lopez, so the teams don’t have a deal to make.

The Nets are in the same situation with Williams, who will opt out to be a free agent this summer. They can go into the summer with the plan to target Howard and re-sign Williams to complete their star tandem for the Brooklyn debut, but the risk is they lose both if Howard re-signs with Orlando or goes to the Dallas Mavericks, where Williams would likely follow.

CHANDLER RETURNING TO LINEUP?

After practice on Saturday at MSG Training Center, D’Antoni said Chandler is expected to be back in the lineup for Sunday’s game against the 76ers. With the team’s defensive anchor back, D’Antoni will go back to the traditional starting lineup of Lin, Landry Fields, Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler.

Jared Jeffries (sore knee) is not expected to be back, so expect rookie Josh Harrellson to remain in the rotation.

SUNDAY BRUNCH AT THE GARDEN

Remember to move your clocks ahead one hour when you wake up Sunday morning, as we spring ahead. The Knicks and 76ers are scheduled to tip-off at noon on MSG, which will feel more like 11 a.m. This will certainly test the Knicks’ recent penchant for sleepy starts.

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Shedding a Bad Rep

Sometimes the toughest obstacle for a team to overcome is its reputation. The Knicks have been bad for years, which is well-documented. In fact, perhaps it’s too well-documented.

In a perfect world, NBA referees would have to adhere to the same restrictions as a sequestered jury. You don’t want them to know history or reputation or trend. You just want them to make a decision based on fact. Not what they think they saw, not what they expect to see, but what they can definitively call. Guilty or Not Guilty. Period.

Before we can even make this case, let’s squelch our own momentum here by pointing out that the Knicks are fifth in the NBA in free throw attempts (942, or 25.4 per game). So clearly they get a very fair share of whistles. But this isn’t about free throw attempts. If you have players who attack the basket and an offense based on pick-and-roll play, then you should get to the line at a high rate.

This is more about history and reputation. This is more about history repeating itself right on the Gah-den parquet. There was Toney Douglas hip-checked to the floor by Kevin Garnett just before Ray Allen’s dagger to win Game 1 in last year’s playoffs. And then there was Garnett again on Sunday afternoon…

With the Knicks up 103-100, poised for a hard-fought statement road win, Boston had a final possession and ran the same play. And this time instead of Douglas, KG obliterated Iman Shumpert with a moving blindside screen for Allen with 13.4 seconds left.

No whistle. Play on.

Shumpert, to his credit, recovered quickly to stay in the play, as the ball went to Garnett on the perimeter.

Here’s where we get into an entirely new debate: A foul could — no, should — have been made right there. Shumpert has a hand inside on Garnett, who put the ball on the floor for a dribble.

This is where we can drive ourselves crazy with the Monday morning quarterbacking. Mike D’Antonihas been consistent with this strategy. “We don’t do that,” he said after the game in reference to taking the foul-on-the-floor and giving up two free throws with a three-point lead.

But the second Garnett puts the ball on the floor there, a quick foul makes sense. If he tries a bogus rip-through and flails as if he was attempting a three and a referee gives him three shots, that’s on the NBA for yet another questionable whistle in a season loaded with them.

Then again, if you’re D’Antoni, and you’ve seen the lack of respect officials give you against elite teams, perhaps it’s a healthy fear of the inevitable.

OK, that allows us to get back to the original point.

So Garnett sets up Pierce on a perfectly executed exchange, which creates a switch and now Shumpert is guarding Pierce. J.R. Smith started on Pierce, but was slowed by a Garnett screen — this time completely legal — on the handoff.

Some might say that J.R. should have powered through the screen like a battering ram and run over Garnett. But what if Pierce let’s go of the shot at the same time and nails it and the referees call the foul? That’s an and-one, with a chance to take the lead.

So for all of you who bemoan the switching that the Knicks do on defense, that time it was the right decision.

The issue was that Pierce was curling right into his sweet spot to his right as Shumpert is chasing on his left. That’s more than enough daylight — and momentum into the shot — for Pierce to square up and release the dagger.

At 4.9 seconds left, it was money. And for the umpteenth time, the Knicks couldn’t handle The Truth.

Shumpert held up properly while defending the shot so to not give the officials a reason to tweet the and-one. They already nailed the rookie for a questionable technical foul for allegedly taunting after he banged one on Garnett early in the fourth quarter. This season, you just never know what the officials are going to call — or fail to call (see: Garnett).

Afterward, Shumpert told reporters that the refs were “calling a lot of elbows,” which means they whistled a lot of contact on the elbow, though they were letting a ton of body contact go without a call. In other words, this was a game in which a touch foul on the perimeter earned you a trip to the foul line, but a hack on the wrist by the rim was considered a blocked or missed shot.

Oh and that technical? Basically a quick staredown of a player who has made a career of glaring at opponents. But referee Scott Foster thought it was critical to slap the rookie with a T at that point in the game.

“I didn’t know I couldn’t look at him,” Shumpert said. “I didn’t say anything. He’s the one who said something. I don’t talk to the refs. I just looked at him. He’s been talking the whole game. I don’t say anything to anybody.”

Nobody said a word, either, after Pierce nudged Carmelo Anthony on his wing jumper before the final buzzer, which missed. It was a quick shot and perhaps if Melo had pump-faked, he’d have drawn the foul as he had Pierce on his hip. But after an 11-point quarter in which he made 4 of his first 9, that game-winner wasn’t to be.

Don’t mistake this for an argument on how the officiating cost the Knicks a win in Boston. The fouls were almost dead even, with the Celtics drawing 24 to 23 by the Knicks. Pierce made an incredible shot and the Knicks gave the game back to Boston with a poor close to the first half and a lifeless third quarter. The fact that they were even in position to win the game speaks volumes about the potential of this team. But the fact that they lost it in overtime also says a lot about how much work still needs to be done.

And the Knicks can talk championship all they want, but they need to first string together some convincing wins from here until the end of the season and establish a new identity. This franchise has gone through so much transition over the last four years that it has allowed the identity from the past decade — one of mediocrity — to linger.

FIXINS

• Melo (25 points) and Amar’e Stoudemire (16 points and 13 rebounds) had good numbers in the box score, but it can’t be overlooked how neither is at the top of their respective games right now. Anthony had his shot blocked three times and Stoudemire twice and they combined to shoot 15-for-37 from the field (40.5 percent). Amar’e blew a put-back dunk in overtime which led to a long rebound and a critical momentum swing. Though Melo had a good fourth quarter, despite the buzzer miss, and the bench was strong again, the Knicks can’t believe they can go anywhere without their two stars playing at their best for the entire game. They can’t contend with the Heat with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade at their peak, with Melo and Amar’e not at theirs.

• Jeremy Lin and Baron Davis like to put their stats together for a Point Guard Total, a sort of positional pride to compare after every game. This is one they’ll prefer not to calculate, as they combined for 12 turnovers (six each) and 22 points (14 for Lin), 12 assists (8 for Davis) and 6 rebounds (four for Lin) against Rajon Rondo’s historical triple-double of 18 points, 20 assists and 17 rebounds. And the Lin-Davis duo played 52 minutes, compared to Rondo’s 48.

• Landry Fields played just 3:11 in the second half (all in the third quarter) and was wholly invisible against the Celtics yet again. There is enough competition now from Shumpert and Smith to push Fields out of the starting lineup at the shooting guard position.

• The best thing about Steve Novak is he knows exactly who he is and isn’t trying to be anything more. One-dimensional player? Well it’s a hell of a dimension. Novak was 4-for-7 from downtown against the Celtics and has now made 57 three pointers this season, which accounts for 80.2 percent of his total made field goals (71) on the season. He’s also shooting 47.5 percent from three-point range, which third-best in the NBA behind Mike Miller (51.7) and Ray Allen (48.3).

• The Knicks remain on the road all week, as they headed to Dallas right after the game in Boston for Tuesday’s game against the MavericksTyson Chandler will finally get his championship ring before the game. Perhaps he can pass it around the room for some added incentive.

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