The Knicks Must Keep Cool When Facing the Heat

In Mike Woodson‘s words, Game 1 against the Heat was actually going fine for his team for the better part of a quarter-and-a-half. “And then,” he said, “all hell broke lose.”

What happened was LeBron James exploded, the Knicks unraveled emotionally and the game got away from them in a stunning instant.

“We were so hyped and wanted to play so well, very well,” Woodson said. “We didn’t get that accomplished. We did for a little over a quarter and a half. We just have to hang in there. We’ve got to beat this team. They’re not going to give it to you.”

No, the Heat are all about taking it to you. The Knicks have seen enough during the regular season to know Miami isn’t the type of team to sit back and play it safe. They were on the attack, like sharks smelling blood in the water, when the Knicks started turning the ball over and fouling on defense.

The game already began with frustration, as Carmelo Anthony missed his first seven shots. Then came three offensive charges, two of which were the correct call. The third was debatable.

But they were only part of an avalanche of whistles that went against the Knicks. In the second quarter, the Knicks were called for 15 fouls, including a Flagrant 1 against Tyson Chandler, when he drilled LeBron with a blindside pick. The Heat were called for just four fouls.

The Heat took 20 free throws in the quarter and the Knicks attempted just one.

Conspiracy? No. But did some overzealous whistles by the officials, especially Ed Malloy, lend to the severe momentum swing in favor of the Heat? Without question.

The Knicks were careful not to go there, however. Not after a 33-point defeat.

“It got a little out of hand out there. But as far as the officials go, we’ve got to let that go,” said Carmelo Anthony, who was hit with a technical for tossing the ball toward referee Danny Crawford. “We can’t go back-and-forth with them when they make a call. When they make it, it is what it is.”

This wasn’t about bad officiating, however. This was about bad composure. The game got away in that 30-13 second quarter and the Knicks were never able to find the fight in themselves to get back into it like the Clippers did Sunday night against the Memphis Grizzlies.

“Just a little bit of frustration on our behalf,” Baron Davis said. “Not staying poised, but trying to get it all back at once.”

With Game 1 over, the Knicks can’t get that one back. But they still can bring the series back to New York with momentum and a 1-1 split. It may be a daunting task with Iman Shumpert now gone with a devastating knee injury — adding injury to the insult — but it’s certainly not impossible.

“Everybody,” Melo said, “is going to have to do a little more.”

It starts with Landry Fields, who will move back into the first five and take on the job of defending Dwyane Wade. Last year, Fields got his baptism by fire against Ray Allen. This year, Fields has to step up to a great challenge.

In fact, this entire team has to do it, once again. Last season, they didn’t get to tip-off of Game 2 without losing two starters, Chauncey Billups (knee) and Amar’e Stoudemire (back). This year, they lost Shumpert, while Davis (back) and Jared Jeffries (knee) are ailing and Chandler is still fighting off the flu. And Jeremy Lin (knee) is nowhere near ready to jump into a series like this against a pressure team like Miami.

Once again, the Knicks couldn’t get to the tip-off of Game 2 without feeling like so much is going against them.

“But there’s no time to be crying about that now,” Melo said, “we’ve got to play basketball.”

This team has been resilient all season. They are 6-0 under Woodson following losses. Can they make it 7-0?

“Hey, they hit us in the mouth,” Woodson said after Game 1. “So we got to see what we’re made of now.”

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Devils-Panthers: This Time, Sudden Death Meant a Devs Series Win

Good-bye, Sunrise; hello Philadelphia. Bus driver, here come the Devils!

Peter DeBoer’s skaters played as hard a road game on Thursday night in Sunrise as they could.

Then again, the Panthers played as good a home game as fans have seen at BankAtlantic Center.

When the irresistible force meets the immovable object in NHL playoffs it usually results in sudden death overtime. This tim, it required a second extra session before rookie Adam Henrique sealed the deal for New Jersey with the game-winner.

Just when it looked like the teams would play well into Friday morning, Henrique did the trick at 3:47, beating an indefatigable Jose Theodore.

It was Henrique’s second of the game — the first came in the opening period — and it resulted from tenacious forechecking.

Before Adam got the puck, his linemates David Clarkson and Alexei Ponikarovsky were ferrets on the spoor of a hot puck, and that produced the triumph.

Clarkson kept the biscuit in the enemy zone whereupon Ponikarovsky managed to float it in the air to Henrique, who gloved the puck down in the high slot and fired the rubber through Theodore’s legs.

“It was tiring,” said a quietly elated Henrique. “I was about to collapse. It was a nice feeling to get the OT winner. I just tried to get it on net and it went in.”

Surely, none of this euphoria would have been possible had Martin Brodeur not saved the Garden State bacon with 43 total stops and marvelous saves in the extra sessions; particularly in the first sudden death.

“Marty was our best player tonight,” coach DeBoer said, “and he had to be or we don’t win.”

But the Devils enter the second round against the Flyers totally enervated after a reassuring start.

They had a one-goal lead, a two-goal lead, then a one-goal lead and lost that in the dying moments of the third period, setting the stage for a second straight sudden death overtime.

Goals by Henrique and Stephen Gionta staked New Jersey to a two-goal lead heading into the third period.

Florida narrowed it to one early in the third on Florida’s power play, which had haunted New Jersey throughout the series.

Stephen Weiss blasted a one-timer from the right circle past Brodeur.

From that point on it was a hold-your-breath affair for the Devils, who were heavily outshot over the third period. The Panthers pressed and the Devils tried to de-press their fleet foe.

The melodrama mounted as the clock ticked first past the 10-minute mark; and then down to six. In classic fashion, the tug-of-war continued until the Devils lost a tug.

Then it happened! With less than four minutes left, a delay of game penalty was called against Devils defenseman Marek Zidlicky, who tried to clear his zone from deep in the left corner but fired the puck over the glass.

That set up a power play and a relatively quick goal by Marcel Goc, who gathered the rebound from Sean Bergenheim’s shot and snapped the puck past Brodeur’s glove.

Into the overtime they went and the Devils failed on a power play followed by several close calls for the visitors, but no cigar.

The Devils bent, but Brodeur’s saves kept them from breaking; leading to the second overtime and the happy ending.

“We are happy to move on,” Florida had a helluva series. We made it hard on ourselves with penalties and that needs to be better.

“We have to stay out of the box against the Flyers. They have a lot of firepower and they are really confident. We have to be smart and very disciplined.”

Right now, they’re tickled pink in red, black and white!

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Star Wars

It was just after the all-star break, when Mike D’Antoni was still filled with optimism and the Knickshad a favorable schedule to prepare for a playoff push. They went into the break with a 102-88 loss to the Heat in Miami, which dropped them a game under .500 at 17-18. The Heat swarmed Jeremy Linwith an obvious intent to completely snuff out whatever remained of Linsanity and after hanging in for most of the game, the Knicks succumbed to the frenetic pace in the fourth quarter.

Standing alone with D’Antoni after the Knicks held their first practice after the break, I mentioned to the coach that I was curious to see how his team would look by the time the Knicks and Heat met one last time in the regular season, on April 15 at The Garden. I suggested that if the championship aspirations D’Antoni and the players talked about in the preseason were to come to fruition, they were going to have to go through Miami.

D’Antoni, who was generally jovial in these conversations, gave me a serious look.

“We can beat that team,” he said sternly.

In a playoff series?

“I’m telling you, we can — no, we WILL — beat that team,” he said again.

D’Antoni didn’t last long enough to be part of it, but we will soon find out if the faith he has in this group — a faith that people close to him said was one of the reasons why he decided to step down before the season was lost — is merited.

Make no mistake about it, despite a season series sweep, which included a 93-85 win at The Garden on April 15, the Miami Heat have a healthy respect for Mike Woodson’s Knicks. They are no longer a disjointed group playing a wide-open offense, as was the case in the first meeting of the season. They are no longer a novelty, which is what surrounded them in the midst of Linsanity in the second game.

They are more like that team in the final meeting, which went punch-for-punch for most of the game until they failed to execute in the fourth quarter (which is supposed to be LeBron’s job).

This will be an entertaining series for many reasons, beginning with the marquee star power on both teams, with only the worldwide icon, Jeremy Lin, absent. My heart wants to believe D’Antoni; it wants to believe the Knicks can reach back into history for yet another playoff upset over the heavily-favored Heat. The fan in me wants to sing Prince with Al Trautwig and Party Like it’s 1999.

But the realist in me has watched the Heat all season. Watched them very, very closely. The road to an NBA championship for the Knicks’ core players will have to go through South Beach. And while Woodson has this team playing as hard as we’ve seen a Knicks team play in over a decade, playing inspiring defense with a resilient attitude and, most importantly, with a pride for the name on the front of that jersey, you have to acknowledge that the Heat have been playing at an impressive level all season long.

Miami has been together for two seasons and had a long playoff run to the NBA Finals last spring. What they lack in depth — and that’s a major weakness — they make up in star power, experience and chemistry. And when it comes to playing at Madison Square Garden, The Three Am-EGO-s want the bright lights of Broadway.

This is the perfect kick start for them, exactly what they’d want to prepare for another long playoff run.

This is why I am picking the Heat to win in 5.

But…

This is not last season’s Knicks going up against the Celtics. That team didn’t have a great deal of collective passion, mainly because the late season trade shook up the roster with very little time left to get re-acclimated. This year’s team, however, is much, much different.

This is a very solid locker room with stars, led by Melo, but supported strongly by the only ring-bearer, Tyson Chandler, who have taken full ownership of the team. Though the schedule was only 66 games as a result of the lockout, this year has felt like three to four seasons in one. There has been enough drama to tear this team apart from the inside. There have been enough injuries to extinguish their spirit. There have been enough bad losses to lose faith.

But none of that ever happened.

Instead, this team just got tighter. What developed is a feeling that they’ve been together for more than just one year. That they’ve endured the embarrassments and the defeats. They’ve been through a few wars. Woodson never allowed a loss to linger, as had happened earlier in the season. The Knicks did not lose consecutive games under Woodson. That’s a trend that can take you a long, long way in the playoffs.

No, this group doesn’t have playoff experience together, but the final month of the season came with playoff-like intensity. And they already have the experience of some high pressure games, such as the showdown in Philadelphia and, of course, the ultimate must-win in Milwaukee.

Sure, the flameout in Cleveland cost them a shot at the sixth spot and facing the Indiana Pacers in the first round, a series that might have made them a favorite. But maybe this team is better with its back against the wall, which it has been all season. Maybe being a favorite doesn’t suit them as well as being the team everyone is counting out. The team that everyone wants to count out.

The team that no one wants to face because they are so damn unpredictable. A team that plays playoff basketball built by gritty defense, a team that has the depth to overcome injuries. That has enough been-there, done-that veterans to not shy away from a moment.

A team that will have almost half the crowd in Miami wearing orange-and-blue, which cancels out home court advantage.

And I will say this: the Heat should win this series in five, but the Knicks can win this series in seven.

Now we see if Mike D’Antoni will be proven right. Now to hope I’m proven wrong.

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Building a Foundation from the Top Down

Glen Grunwald had a tough act to follow after Donnie Walsh. The latter was a widely-respected, vastly-experienced and media-savvy executive who rejuvenated a troubled franchise just by his mere presence. Grunwald had experience, but he was not Donnie Walsh.

But that didn’t make him underqualified.

All he was — and continues to be — is understated. But Grunwald proved enough this season that he may have also been underrated. He did a credible job building a solid roster around the team’s stars, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, beginning with the stunning maneuver to land Defensive Player of the Year candidate Tyson Chandler.

This wasn’t a move that appeared out of thin air when the NBA lockout lifted in December. Chandler’s agent, Jeff Schwartz, had talked to the Knicks about other, lower-end free agents when he and Grunwald got into a discussion about Chandler’s future. Schwartz said he let Grunwald know that Chandler would love to play in New York, if they could find a way to clear salary cap space.

Grunwald kept that in the back of his mind and went to his experienced staff, with Mark Warkentien, John Gabriel and Allan Houston, and discussed a top secret idea that carried a major risk: waive veteran point guard Chauncey Billups via the NBA’s post-lockout amnesty clause to create the salary cap space to sign Chandler.

Essentially, this was creating a hole at one critical starting position to fill another. It was a bold move by an interim GM (the last time that happened, Frederic Weis was drafted) and no one — no one — saw it coming.

Chandler has not just proven to be a terrific acquisition on the court, where he has brought back a long-lost defensive character to the team, but he has also emerged as a strong locker room voice and one of the most likable, respected athletes in New York.

And so with a need for stability at the top of a Knicks team that now has a star-studded frontcourt core in its prime and two potential-laden young guards in Jeremy Lin and Iman Shumpert, Madison Square Garden executive chairman James Dolan on Tuesday removed the interim label from Grunwald’s title as general manager.

“Glen has done a terrific job this season,” Dolan said in a statement. “He is an intelligent, seasoned executive and we look forward to him continuing in the role of General Manager for many years to come.”

The move ensures the group that built this roster will remain intact as it sees its way through a new era that comes with championship aspirations. Grunwald isn’t an alpha in this equation, he is part of an Ocean’s Eleven-type group dynamic that appears to be working well for the Knicks.

So if Grunwald, with impeccable administration and organization skills, is the brains of the outfit, then Warkentien, the former NBA Executive of the Year who prefers scouring the college game and roaming the D-League circuit to hanging in New York City, as the hustle. Gabriel, another former NBA Executive of the Year with connections all over the league, is the intelligence.

And then there’s Houston, who has great potential as a smooth, level-headed front man. His credibility is growing by the day as Houston, who doesn’t want to be just a smile in an empty suit, is spending time learning as many positions as possible, from D-League GM to an unofficial role as an assistant coach behind the bench.

It is a group that has worked together for a year now and believes they compliment each other well. There are always disagreements and debates over players, strategy and, of course, the draft, and that’s where Grunwald has to be the strongest personality.

There’s still a great deal of work to be done here, so removing the interim tag from Grunwald’s title should not be viewed as a reward of any accomplishment, but a confidence in his ability.

WOODSON ON DECK?

The front office was one of several critical areas that Dolan and Garden management had to address this offseason. After Grunwald, there still remains another interim title at a high-ranking position: head coach.

Could Woodson be next?

“I would love to come back,” Woodson said after Tuesday’s practice at MSG Training Center. “I think when you’ve been given an opportunity to start something, you’d love to finish it.”

With 16 wins in his first 22 games since he was promoted in the wake of Mike D’Antoni’s departure, Woodson has already built a case for himself.

“Again, that’s not my call but I think when that time comes I’ll probably have an opportunity to sit down and talk with Mr. Dolan and management about it; hopefully it’ll work in my favor,” Woodson added. “But right now that’s not my concern. My concern is finishing these two games and getting this team into the playoffs and seeing how we can continue to play-on. That’s what it’s all about.”

Playoff success — which some may translate to mean at least a competitive showing against the Heat or Bulls in the first round, but may require a second round appearance — may be all that’s left to seal the deal for Woodson. And he certainly has a personal connection to the boss, as he and Grunwald are former college teammates who have maintained a long mutual respect.

But unlike Grunwald’s position, where there weren’t any no-brainer candidates available (names such as Ed Stefanski, Jeff Bower and Kevin Pritchard were bandied about last summer), Woodson is competing with a few marquee names, none bigger than Hall of Famer Phil Jackson. There is also the ubiquitous (and relentless) John Calipari.

If Jackson convinces the Garden brass that he’s fully committed to winning a championship with the franchise where his playing career began and his mentor, Red Holzman, left a legacy, it’s impossible to believe he’d be quickly dismissed. But the concern is that Jackson, at 70, may not have the necessary energy to handle the demands of a job.

What Woodson also has going for him is the endorsement of the team’s current stars, beginning with Carmelo Anthony, who has been rejuvenated since the coaching change. Melo said at practice on Tuesday that he’d be happy to see Woodson back next season.

Of course you wouldn’t expect him to say anything less two games before the playoffs are set to begin, would you? The contrast in Melo’s performance before and after the coaching change is stark:

• In 32 games under D’Antoni, he averaged 21.3 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game, and was shooting a career-low 40 percent from the field and 23 percent from three-point range.

• In 22 games under Woodson, he is averaging 24.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game and shooting 47.1 percent from the field and a sizzling 48.8 percent from three-point range. Ironically, his three-point attempts per game is also a higher rate under Woodson than D’Antoni.

What stands out most is how locked-in Melo has become under Woodson, especially on the defensive end. The two developed a quick trust based on the fact that they needed each other.

“He’s caught some heat this year from the media and somehow we’ve got to help Melo and Melo’s got to help us get the heat off,” Woodson said, “and you do that by winning and playing at a high level every time you step out on the basketball floor.”

With D’Antoni gone, Melo faced the brunt of the criticism for the team’s failure and Woodson quickly stepped in front of the bullets. He also put the ball in Melo’s hands, but with the caveat that he earned his preferred isolation sets with an honest effort at the defensive end.

Melo quickly bought in and it wasn’t long before the rhythm — and that dynamically quick release — finally arrived from Denver.

“Just to see what he’s [brought] to our team, the confidence that he’s instilled in everybody and the belief he has in everybody; just his coaching style, the way he’s coached, kind of a hard-nosed coach, holds everybody accountable,” Anthony said of Woodson. “I’ve been saying that — everybody is responsible for their own actions. I would love to see him around here.”

Stoudemire had far more of a loyalty to D’Antoni and he, along with Chandler and several other players, were initially displeased with D’Antoni’s surrender to the power struggle with Anthony. But neither Chandler nor Stoudemire can aruge with the results or find fault with the structure and discipline — two of D’Antoni’s greatest weaknesses — that Woodson has brought to the locker room.

The defensive-minded Woodson couldn’t wish for a more reliable center and leader than Chandler. To get the intense, tireless Stoudemire defensively focused could, even more than Melo, be Woodson’s greatest achievement.

Stoudemire has flaws there, but he’s shown a sincere willingness to learn.

“Coach Woodson has done a great job for us,” Stoudemire said. “He’s done a phenomenal, phenomenal job. I love his attitude, I love his coaching style.”

Stoudemire continued on to say “it would be nice” to see Woodson get the job full-time.

An endorsement from the team’s $40 million-a-year duo may be all Woodson needs to secure his future in New York. Melo was asked if he’d go to management with the same statements he was making to the media.

“I’m pretty sure they’re hearing it right now,” he said with a grin. “Like I said, I would love to see him around here. That’s all I can say.”

Woodson’s fate will be determined more by actions, not words. How the stars respond in the playoffs, how he handles the chess match of a playoff series will also be under the microscope.

FIXINS

• The Clippers loss in Atlanta on Tuesday means they no longer are playing for the Pacific Division title. However, they still have the incentive of clinching the No. 4 seed in the West to own home court advantage in their first round meeting with the Memphis Grizzlies, so it’s hard to believe Vinny Del Negro will rest his main players, such as Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Especially not at The Garden.Wednesday night will be the season finale for the Clippers.

• Woodson said he is in “rotation mode” in these final two regular season games, so it doesn’t sound like he plans on giving his starters any games off. He did say he will give newly-signed centerDan Gadzuric some burn against the Clippers to get a look at the journeyman big man. Gadzuric needs to appear in one regular season game to be eligible for the playoff roster.

• Ballots for NBA awards are due Friday from the national media. Chandler admitted he is hoping to win the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award. In fact, he said he focused on that during the offseason. “When I was training this summer, that was one of the biggest things I was thinking of,” he said. His strongest competition will come from Thunder center Serge Ibaka, who leads the league with 3.7 blocks per game.

• Be sure to tune into Knicks Game Night on MSG Networks for the Knicks Fix regular season finale, which will include what Stoudemire told me about Blake Griffin’s frustration with physical play, what Allan Houston has done to help Landry Fields‘ jump shot and my own NBA awards for the season.

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Just Win, Baby!

This is the finish my friend, this is the end;

It’s a revolution, live in revenge.

There’s no need to move or adjust your television.

Whenever an era dies, another era begins…

                                                                    — B.o.B, “NY, NY”

There should be no celebration this time. Let’s just acknowledge what was supposed to be the result of this season all along: The Knicks are in the playoffs again.

It became official when the Milwaukee Bucks dropped a 118-109 loss in Indiana on Thursday night, which eliminated any chance of them catching the Knicks (33-29) in the Eastern Conference playoff standings by virtue of the NBA tiebreaker format.

Just think only nine days ago, the Knicks were trailing by eight points in the fourth quarter in Milwaukee and faced the reality of falling out of the East playoff bracket. They rallied to win that night, 111-107, in a game that now stands out as the most important victory of the season…to date.

Let’s re-emphasize: The Knicks were supposed to make the playoffs. So what they’ve accomplished so far — though this 15-5 run under Mike Woodson is impressive — is merely to meet expectations. Going into Friday night’s games, the Knicks still were mathematically in play to finish as high as the fifth seed, but they could finish as low as eighth.

OK, with all of this acknowledged now (we’ll save the potential matchup conversation for a later date), let’s take a moment to point out something that is worth celebrating: The official end of an era.

The Bucks loss clinched a second straight postseason trip, which will mark the first time in 11 years that the Knicks earned consecutive berths. It was during the Patrick Ewing era that the team made 14 straight trips to the playoffs, from 1987-88 to 2000-01. Coincidentally (or not), once the Ewing era ended, the run of playoff appearances quickly came to an end, too.

Ewing was traded in 2000, the team made the playoffs in 2000-01 and then saw the postseason only once (2004) in a nine year span from 2001-10.

That is the second-worst drought in franchise history, after a 12 season run from 1955-56 to 1965-66 saw just two playoff appearances.

But perhaps Wednesday’s victory in New Jersey, which provided the 33rd win of the 66-game season, provided an equally important accomplishment. It clinched at least a .500 finish, which may be a modest result, but not when you consider recent history.

The Knicks haven’t had consecutive non-losing seasons since, again, 2000-01, which was the last of nine-straight winning seasons.

After that season, the Knicks had posted nine straight losing records, including the 2003-04 campaign (39-43) that resulted in a playoff berth. That run ended last season when Mike D’Antoni’s Knicks finished 42-40. Mike Woodson has the team four games over .500 and aiming for more.

The Knicks are also 21-11 at home, which is their best winning percentage (.656) at The Garden since the 2000-01 season. One of the most important missions in creating a new era was to re-establish The Garden as a home court and not a personal showcase stage for visiting stars (see: LeBron, Kobe, Paul Pierce and, when he arrives next week, Blake Griffin), which is what it became in the 2000s.

Much like losing became the ugly stain of the past decade, winning is what establishes not only the end of that era, but the beginning of a new one. But it takes more than just one season, one playoff berth, to put separation between the eras. And before Woodson took the helm, this team looked destined for a losing record and there was a very real potential to miss the playoffs.

So we can now call this a new era. One that will have stars Carmelo AnthonyAmar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler here for at least another three to five years. One that has some intriguing young talent, such as Jeremy Lin and Iman Shumpert, as well. One that has major decisions to make at head coach and in the front office this offseason, as well.

This is still the beginning of this new era. But the good news is, it also is the end of the old one.

What this new era needs now is another long-awaited achievement: Winning a playoff series, which hasn’t been done since Ewing left.

Actually, winning a playoff game would be a good start. It’s been 11 years.

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The Ever-Growing Legend of Stevie Knicks

When he merely rises from the bench and pulls off his warmup shirt, The Garden crowd begins to stir. When he simply catches the ball, the people urge him to shoot.

When it goes in, it is like a religious experience.

So the eight from downtown that he drained (on 10 attempts) against the Celtics in a 118-110 winon Tuesday night — including a pair of clutch bombs that served as daggers late in the game as Boston was making a push — had The Garden delirious on a night the Knicks hit 19 three-pointers.

“He is the best three-point shooter in our league, it’s not even close,” said J.R. Smith, who, himself, had seven and also seems to always know where Steve Novak is on the floor. “People are starting to catch on to it, but not fast enough.”

Smith is right. The NBA is now well-aware of the sharp-shooting prowess (and the “Discount Triple-Check” celebration) of a player that was starting to fade from existence five seasons into his career. Novak’s emergence as one of the league’s most dangerous shooters — he currently leads the league in three-point shooting percentage (47.2 percent) — has put him high on advance scouting reports.

The next step for him to make as he attempts to establish this season not as a fluke, but a breakthrough is the ability to run off screens and like the game’s top snipers do. Mike Woodsonhas inserted a few plays for Novak and we saw a few run very effectively against the Celtics.

“He had a lot of great looks and he knocked them down,” Woodson said. “As we continue to flow and go along, those shots will become tougher because teams, they watch tape and they’re not going to leave. So we’ve got to find ways to get him some looks.”

The Heat, for one, stayed glued to Novak throughout Sunday’s game and he struggled to get free. The Bulls did the same. Considering that these are the two most likely potential first round opponents for the Knicks, Woodson definitely has to create movement to help free up Novak.

And while his three-ball is what has everyone smitten, Novak is working hard to dispel the cynicism about other areas of his game, including defense. Coincidentally, Woodson is admittedly not a big fan of the three-pointer, but with a weapon like Novak, how could he not utilize him. But Novak can’t stay on the court, especially in critical moments, if he is a liability on defense.

It’s obvious teams will attack him on offense, so, to his credit (and Woodson’s demand) he has put more focus on preparation on that end of the floor. And despite physical mismatches — he was caught one-on-one with LeBron James and Paul Pierce several times in the last two games — he has been determined to compete. Against Boston, Novak banged in the low post with the powerful Brandon Bass and came out of it no worse for the wear.

But there’s no question this one-dimensional player has a hell of a dimension: Shooting. And he has a chance to leave his mark in the Knicks annals with the greatest three-point shooting season in franchise history. Hubert Davis currently holds the all-time highest three-point shooting percentage for a season with 47.6 percent in 1995-96. Novak is right on his tail with five games to go.

He also has a chance to be the first Knick since Campy Russell in 1981-82 to lead the NBA in three-point shooting percentage.

As for threes made, he’s far off the franchise season mark, but considering the compressed schedule and his late arrival to the rotation, he’s not that far. Novak has 117 three-pointers made in 49 games, which is 2.4 per game and 100 shy of the franchise record for a season. John Starks had 217 in 80 games (2.7 per game) in the 1994-95 season. Consider that Starks played 34.1 minutes per game that season, while Novak has played a little more than half of that: 18.2 minutes per game this season.

OK, so now that we agree that Novak is a keeper, how do the Knicks keep him?

Novak was picked up on waivers from the San Antonio Spurs in December, who had signed him to a pair of 10-day contracts before he was locked up for the rest of the season in 2010-11 and, as a result, given a second year for 2011-12.

The Knicks don’t have any Bird Rights on Novak, so he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. They will be over the NBA salary cap, so the only way to re-sign Novak — with the understanding that his market value will no longer be as a veteran’s minimum player — is to dip into their two resources: The mid-level exception ($5 million) and, as long as the Knicks are below the luxury tax threshold, the bi-annual exception ($1.9 million).

Now, the Knicks will probably need most of their MLE to re-sign Jeremy Lin, but how much of it depends on what the market demands for the restricted free agent (the Knicks have the right to match). But there is certain to be some competition for Novak from contending teams, as well.

Novak has found a home at The Garden this season. Whether he keeps it a home — remember, Shawne Williams took the money and ran, too (and who could blame him?) — remains to be seen.

The team’s core of Carmelo AnthonyAmar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler are locked up for at least another three years. Lin and Iman Shumpert are also expected to be around for a while. What the Knicks have to do is be creative to build, and maintain, a strong bench. Novak is a big part of that mission.

AMAR’E LOOKS CLOSE (AND DIFFERENT)

As he hit The Garden floor for his rigorous pregame workout routine, Amar’e Stoudemire pulled back his hoodie just a bit and grinned. Along with a clean-shaven jaw and a well-cropped goatee, Stoudemire had his hair in neat cornrows.

It was a throwback look to that of a 16-year-old Stoudemire we saw in a clever time machine ad by the NBA last season.

The Knicks would love to put Amar’e in a time machine, perhaps to December of 2010, when he was arguably the most dominant player in the NBA in a month that saw him break a franchise record with nine straight 30-plus point performances.

This time around, it’s now Carmelo who is having a big month and as Stoudemire is poised to return to the lineup (perhaps as soon as Friday in Cleveland?), the talk is less about how Stoudemire will bolster the lineup and more that his presence could mess up Melo’s game.

The two have managed to co-exist with mild success on the court, but more often than not the two have not equally thrived at the same time. Mike D’Antoni struggled to find the answer and now it’s Mike Woodson’s task as the playoffs near.

“I’ve got to see if this is going to work,” Woodson said. “I got to make it work.”

The fact of the matter is Stoudemire should not step into the lineup and disrupt the offense because he will be looking to get his body into game condition. The best mentality he can take into the game is to keep it as simple as possible and stick to fundamentals: Run hard, box out, rebound and defend. Stoudemire, for now, should have the focus of a role player and, like everyone else, play off Melo.

Then as he gets more and more comfortable, and the injured back appears stable, the Knicks can start working him back in as a go-to option in the offense.

FIXINS

• What, you thought I’d lead with Melo’s triple-double? Hey, you never read it in this space that he was dominating the offense too much. Melo is probably feeling as good as he has since training camp began in December and he has really found his game under Woodson. He also doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his basketball IQ, which is something Mike D’Antoni used to tell me regularly.

The truth is, Melo sees the floor better than most think. He is mostly a willing passer, but he can be stubborn. When his mind is right, as it is now, he has tremendous court awareness. The Celtics, as Doc Rivers said, paid almost too much attention to him, which freed up the shooters around Melo and he found them. And when Boston defended him one-on-one, he recognized that and scored seemingly at will against whatever physical defenders (he seemed to enjoy the pounding from Sasha Pavlovic and Brandon Bass) they threw at him.

Hey, there’s nothing new to Melo finding open shooters. He’s been doing it throughout the season. But look back and consider how many wide-open shots the Knicks have missed this season? Would you keep passing to a guy in the corner who has bricked four straight?

“We just made shots tonight,” he correctly noted. “Guys were open the way [the Celtics] were guarding me tonight.”

For Woodson, the plan should be to find a way to set up Stoudemire as another outlet for Melo to find when double-teams come.

• Jared Jeffries played just 5:39 off the bench which shouldn’t be a surprise considering he’s playing through serious pain in his right knee, which will almost certainly need surgery in the offseason. In fact, Jeffries, who is wearing a brace to protect the knee, may be told to shut it down again once Amar’e returns to the lineup.

The season is almost over, but the Knicks are still keeping an eye out for potential big man help for the playoffs, be it via the D-League or elsewhere. A free agent is playoff eligible only if he appears in one regular season game, so Knicks would have to have the player in uniform (and on the court) by the season finale on April 26.

• Baron Davis had a stomach flu in the morning and needed an IV to help him feel good enough to play against the Celtics. Then, he said, in the third quarter he tweaked his balky hamstring. With Jeremy Lin out of the lineup, Davis knows the Knicks desperately need him and therefore he is playing most nights when, in any other situation, he’d be sitting out. With Davis (18:24, scoreless, 1 assists, 2 rebounds, 2 turnovers) at barely a half-tank, the backup point guard situation is precarious, but credit veteran Mike Bibby for coming through against Boston. Bibby played 26:27 and though he recorded just three points, he posted six assists with no turnovers and five rebounds.

• After consecutive games on the exclusive national schedule, we return with the MSG Networkbroadcast Wednesday night (Knicks Game Night starts at 7 p.m.) when the Knicks play their final game in the state of New Jersey. Despite finding a usually very Knicks-friendly crowd when they cross the Hudson, the Knicks in regular season play are 31-48 all-time against the Nets in Jersey since the franchise moved there in 1977. The Nets played their first NBA season at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, where the Knicks were 2-0 in 1976-77 (yes, when the Nets are in Brooklyn next season, it won’t be the first time the Knicks play the Nets as a New York-based team).

The Knicks have played the Nets in three different sites since the team moved to New Jersey in ’77. The first four seasons were at the Rutgers Athletic Center, followed by 21 years at the Meadowlands Arena and then last season (and this one) at the Prudential Center in Newark.

For anyone keeping score, the Knicks are 84-82 in all-time regular season meetings against their rivals since the NBA-ABA merger.

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The Knicks Need a Sixth Sense

Every NBA team had to play at least one back-to-back-to-back this season as a result of the compressed schedule following the lockout. But did anyone have it easier than the Boston Celtics?

Their only one of the season came this past weekend, against a murderer’s row of the Raptors, Nets and Bobcats. Three lottery-bound teams. The C’s didn’t even play their Big Three against Charlotte and came away with an easy win to sweep the triple trip.

That win, coupled by the Knicks loss Sunday to the Miami Heat, opened a 4 1/2 game dividebetween the old rivals going into Tuesday’s game at Madison Square Garden. While Mike Woodsontalked at length on Saturday about playing for the Atlantic Division, with six games to go, that is now a most improbable goal.

Even with a win on Tuesday, the Knicks would be 3 1/2 back with five to play and would keep Boston from clinching the season series. The Knicks would be a half-game behind Boston in the next tiebreaker, division record.

Three of the Knicks’ final five games are against lottery-bound teams, while the Celtics face three straight playoff teams — including the Miami Heat on April 24 — and then they close the season against the Bucks, who expect to be battling for the final playoff spot to the very end.

But Boston’s next game, after playing the Knicks, is Wednesday against the Orlando Magic, who are without Dwight Howard. You can look at this as a win-win for the Knicks, but only if they beat Boston and then take care of business in New Jersey on Wednesday.

A Magic win moves the Knicks within 2 1/2 of the division lead. A Celtics win moves the Knicks closer Orlando for the 6th seed in the East (depending on the outcome of Magic-76ers on Monday, which is, of course, another important game for the Knicks when it comes to playoff positioning).

Let’s forget the 76ers and seventh place for a moment and consider what is more probable: catching the Celtics or catching the Magic?

After playing Boston on Wednesday, Orlando has road games in Utah and Denver, two teams battling for a playoff spot in the West, before finishing against Charlotte (an easy one) then closing out the season in Memphis (tough one).

The sixth seed is very, very attainable for the Knicks. And what should make it just as motivating as vying for the division is that a sixth-place finish means a likely first round matchup with the Indiana Pacers.

Let’s see, Chicago, Miami or Indiana? Whom would you rather face?

BOSH HAS BEEN MIAMI’S SPICE

The givens have always been Dwyane Wade and LeBron James against the Knicks. But the player who is so often overlooked in these matchups but has made the difference for Miami against the Knicks is their third star, Chris Bosh.

In six games against the Knicks since he joined Miami Thrice in 2010, Bosh has averaged 19.7 points and 10 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the field. He had 16 points and 14 rebounds in 35 minutes as the third option in Sunday’s 93-85 finale.

The Knicks, like most opponents, pay so much collective attention to containing Wade and James that Bosh benefits from one-on-one coverage or mismatches on the pick-and-roll switch. The Knicks missed Amar’e Stoudemire in this game more than ever, if at least to match up against Bosh, which allows Tyson Chandler to roam as a helper off the Heat bigs, Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem (Ronny Turiaf didn’t play, which was a surprise).

The Knicks’ small lineup hurt them in this game, especially with Landry Fields starting off on LeBron. This was one of the few times I had to question Woodson’s strategy, because Carmelo knows how to guard LeBron and Tyson Chandler should have started out on Bosh. What do you do with Landry? Bring him off the bench and start Josh Harrellson on the Heat centers, who are only there to bang, board, set screens and hit an occasional jumper. Jorts can handle that.

But having Landry on LeBron required a ton of help defense. Woodson can argue, however, that Fields (and Melo) did a decent job keeping LeBron on the perimeter, where he’ll tend to exist. He’s not a great shooter (1-for-6 from three-point range), but in this game he was hitting those mid-range jumpers (10-for-18 from two-point range).

SPEAKING OF LANDRY…

We’ve always supported Fields in this space and on the air and always point out the many intangibles he brings to the game. But on Sunday, it was impossible not to notice how overwhelmed he looked on offense and how much it is now impacting other parts of his game, especially his confidence.

Woodson often shoulders the burden of a struggling player and says “I have to do a better job” when it comes to helping that player find his game. He said it about Melo and he’s now saying it about Landry, who had The Garden growling at him and Twitter feeds lambasting him.

Fields, who was a team-high minus-15, seemed to have a grenade in his hand every time he touched the ball. His maddeningly flat jump shot dented the rim with six bricks on eight attempts and at the end of the first half, the Knicks had a four-point lead evaporate when the Heat scored on three straight possessions. Each time the basket was scored by whomever Fields was defending.

Woodson, however, won’t treat Bill Walker like an old record (you know, dust him off and play him) in favor of the slumping Fields.

“I have to help him,” Woodson said. “He’s not playing with a whole lot of confidence, but I need him in there because he does a lot of good things from a defensive standpoint.”

Confidence is the clear issue with Landry, who might be the most modest exceptional athlete in the NBA. Right now, Landry practically asks permission to drive to the basket and you can almost hear him say excuse me when a defender jumps in his path.

The jump shot is definitely messed up and probably will need the offseason to get it overhauled. But right now what Landry needs is to play with some anger. We saw this in the playoffs last season, when Fields looked mentally overwhelmed by the intensity of playoff basketball against a veteran team like the Celtics.

Well, that intensity is here again.

FIXINS

• The Knicks didn’t hold a formal practice today, but MSG Training Center was open for players who needed treatment (and at this time of year, who doesn’t?) and extra conditioning. Stoudemire will scrimmage some more to get himself closer to being game-ready, which could come some time this week.

• Tyson Chandler said he banged knees with Joel Anthony, which led to a lot of instability and discomfort, but he said he would be fine and expected to play against the Celtics. Chandler had just five rebounds against the Heat, which put two bodies on him to box out after just about every shot. It was an excellent strategy, as the Heat, not known as a great rebounding team, won the battle of the boards, 47-33.

• Once again the point guard position continues to be a major issue for the Knicks offense and, if critics are paying attention, is exactly why Melo has to carry the offense right now. Baron Davis is playing at a half-tank, at best, and though he gets off to good starts, you can see with fatigue his game gets sloppy and ineffective. Another reason why the Knicks need to desperately target the sixth spot, because if they can get by the Pacers, they can get Jeremy Lin back for a potential second round matchup against the Bulls.

• We’re always making nostalgic references to those beloved 90’s Knicks teams. For those fans too young to remember those teams, what you’re seeing right now out of the current Knicks is pretty much what those teams were. See if you can make the connection: They were often criticized for relying too much on Patrick Ewing to score in a very deliberate offense, they played tough, hard-nosed defense, they seemed to always have an ill-timed injury impact the rotation and they were equally fun and maddening to watch.

Sound familiar?

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HENRY AND COOPER HAVE BEEN THE PERFECT PAIR

As good as the Luke RodgersThierry Henry partnership was last year for the Red Bulls, the team’s new — and arguably improved — strike combination has looked so much better this season.

The Kenny Cooper-Henry tandem has taken Major League Soccer by storm and proving to be quite the handful for opposing defenses, powering New York to three straight victories after the team struggled out of the gate to start the season. Henry and Cooper are 1-2 in the league in terms of total goals scored —  Henry has seven, while Cooper has six  — and have quickly become the driving force in the Red Bulls’ early-season resurgence.

If you took a quick look at Cooper, you would think his role would be more of a target striker, someone to occupy opposing defenders while using his hulking 6-foot-3 frame as a physical advantage. But Cooper is more than just a big body; the former Manchester United trainee enjoys having the ball at his feet and likes to run through the channels, something you would expect from a more fleet of foot forward.

That type of play suits Henry perfectly, with the Red Bulls’ captain now playing a deepertrequartista, or No. 10 role as a second striker that knits play between the attack and midfield in the attacking third of the pitch. We all know the French hitman is a deadly marksman, but he has shown a penchant for being much more of a creative force this season, with Cooper the biggest beneficiary.

The Red Bulls’ first goal of the season is a perfect example of how the two are working so well together.

Notice the perfect pass from Henry on the lobbed chip pass over the defense that falls right on the path of Cooper, who shows a touch of class to lob the keeper for the goal. From a deep position, Henry finds Cooper making a perfect run at the right time to burst by the defense for the opportunity.

As good as both players are, they’re both not going to be scoring at this rate for the rest of the season. But for a Red Bulls team that was so heavily criticized at the start of the 2012 campaign, they’ll keep enjoying the flood of goals for as long as it lasts.

Meara, Meara in the Goal

It’s already been pointed out by countless others, but it has to be said: Ryan Meara looks like Larry Bird’s long-lost twin.

While he may not be a legend yet like his well-known look-a-like, he might be the answer the Red Bulls have been searching for in between the sticks all these years.

The Yonkers native has also been stellar as the Red Bulls’ goalie this season and leads MLS in saves made. Poised and unflappable, the former Fordham Ram has saved the Red Bulls’ defense countless times with his quick decision making and even quicker reflexes. His second-half saves against the Crew Saturday put to rest any chance of a Columbus comeback and kept New York comfortably ahead.

It must be said that Meara’s defense has done him no favors. Center back Marcus Helgarsson has struggled mightily with his adjustment to the American first division and probably cost Meara his first clean sheet Saturday in the win against Columbus with poor marking on Chad Marshall’s 89th-minute header. And while the Red Bulls lead the league in goals scored (14), they also the lead the league in goals allowed (11).

The problems in defense have only accentuated the positive performances from Meara, who fully deserves to have at least one clean sheet, if not two, during the Red Bulls’ winning streak. Only time will tell if Meara can keep up his current form, but it’s safe that he’s been the best part of the defense so far.

 

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Can the Knicks Buck the Trend?

It was just days before Christmas 1997 and the Knicks were coming off a brutal loss in Cleveland and in Milwaukee for the second game of a back-to-back. They were 15-10 at the time, but maintained lofty expectations as perennial championship contenders.

It was in the final seconds of the first half in a game that was already getting away from the Knicks when Patrick Ewing reached for an alley-oop pass from Charlie Ward. Bucks center Andrew Lang nudged Ewing from behind and The Franchise fell awkwardly and smashed his right wrist — and championship hopes for another year — to smithereens.

Though Ewing remained with the team until 2000, and came back to play more big games, that was his last game as the cornerstone of the franchise. The Ewing Era ended on the floor of the Bradley Center.

Almost 15 years later, the Knicks are in Milwaukee looking to avoid another pivotal and, potentially, devastating loss in the Brew City.

“We have no choice,” Carmelo Anthony said, “but to be ready for that game.”

Recent history is not on their side. The Knicks have lost five straight games at the Bradley Center since a 120-112 win on March 10, 2009 that saw Larry Hughes score 39 points and Nate Robinson put up 32 off the bench.

Overall, the Knicks have lost nine of the last 11 games against Milwaukee.

These two teams have been on a tear over the past month. The Knicks are 11-4 since Mike Woodson replaced Mike D’Antoni as head coach. But the Bucks have rallied to stay right on the heels of the Knicks in the playoff race by winning 13 of their last 18 games. It all started with a 119-114 win over the Knicks in Milwaukee on March 9.

The Knicks won the teams’ previous meeting, 89-80, at the Garden on March 26. Bucks guard Brandon Jennings, who had 15 points on 6 of 22 shooting, dismissed it as a bad shooting night. He wasn’t about to credit the Knicks defense.

And after a blowout loss to the indomitable Oklahoma City Thunder, which saw Milwaukee fall behind early, Jennings pointed to the team’s next game, against the Knicks, and said, “For sure, Wednesday, that’s not going to happen.”

Not quite Danny Granger’s “winnable games” remark that was nailed to the bulletin board, but Jennings got the talking started early.

The Knicks, coming off a frustrating night, as well, after Tuesday’s 98-86 loss in Chicago, can only focus internally right now. Both Melo and Tyson Chandler, the only two players who spoke to the media after the game, agreed this matchup with the Bucks is “a must-win.”

“We have to approach it like it’s a Game 7 in the playoffs,” Chandler said.

“It’s probably one of the biggest games of the season for us,” Anthony said. “We’ve got to approach it like that.”

Here’s why:

• A Knicks win would not only open a two-game lead over the Bucks with eight games to play, it would even the season series at 2-2 and move a tiebreaker against the Bucks to whomever has the better Eastern Conference record. A win would give the Knicks a 23-18 conference record, compared to a 21-19 conference record for Milwaukee. The Knicks have seven more Eastern Conference games left on the schedule, while the Bucks have eight. A win would also move the Knicks within a half-game of the 76ers for the seventh spot.

• A Bucks win would put the teams in a record tie (29-29), but give the Bucks sole ownership of the eighth spot — the final playoff berth in the East — because they would also clinch the season series at 3 games to 1. The Knicks would also fall 1 1/2 games behind the Philadelphia 76ers for seventh.

What remains:

• The Bucks and 76ers face each other in Milwaukee in the second-to-last game of the regular season. That favors the Knicks as long as they stay within reach of Philadelphia because they could benefit no matter who wins and loses.

• After playing the Bucks, the Knicks have eight games remaining, with four against playoff-bound teams: Heat, Celtics, at Hawks and Clippers. But three of their final five games come against lottery bound teams: at Nets, at Cavs and the season finale, at Bobcats.

• After playing the Knicks, the Bucks have eight games remaining, with four against playoff-bound teams: Pacers, at Pacers, 76ers and at Celtics. The Knicks have the tougher opponents, but the Bucks opponents are each playing for seedings. The question is, if Boston already has the Atlantic Division wrapped up in that season finale, do they rest their main players?

If the Knicks win tonight, most of this will probably not matter.

“At this point, we have to understand what’s at stake,” Chandler said, “because ultimately we hold our own future in our own hands.”

FIXINS

• Painful when the Novakaine wears off, isn’t it? Steve Novak went 0-for-3 from three-point range on Tuesday night and was 0-for-7 from downtown in the home-and-home with the Bulls. It was the first time this season he has gone consecutive games without making at least one three-pointer. The Bulls played him well and gave him very few open looks. See if he can end his drought on the hometown rims in Milwaukee.

• Mobb Deep came up small on Tuesday, with just 18 points by the bench compared to Chicago’s 33 bench points. J.R. Smith had 14 points, Novak hit two free throws and Bill Walker had a meaningless layup in the final seconds. Need much more than that against Milwaukee, which doesn’t have a great bench, but does have Knick-killer Mike Dunleavy.

• Baron Davis had a good start in Chicago and seemed like he was in a nice rhythm, but his passing got erratic and you could see he was frustrating Woodson with his decisions on offense. He dove for the ball in the fourth quarter and came up showing some discomfort. Considering his back issues, it’s something to monitor in the second game within a 20-hour span against a speedy, relentless Bucks backcourt.

• After facing the NBA’s best offensive rebounding team — the Bulls, No. 1 at 14 a game, had 18 on Tuesday — the Knicks go up against a Bucks team that ranks No. 5, with 12.5 per game. The fundamentals are simple: box out. Player they most have to lock down: Ersan Ilyasova.

• Key matchup to watch: Iman Shumpert vs. Brandon Jennings. This is one where you wish both players were mic’d up, just to hear the trash talk.

• Remember: We’ll have wall-to-wall coverage starting with Knicks Game Night, which starts at 7:30 p.m. on MSG Networks. Tip-off is at 8 p.m. and don’t forget the Knicks PostGame Show afterward!

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Madison Square Guardian

The Knicks are enduring without Amar’e Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin. They have survived without Carmelo Anthony consistently playing at the top of his game.

And none of this would have been possible without Tyson Chandler.

Mike Woodson offered the ultimate compliment for any professional athlete when talking about Chandler’s impact on the team:

“He’s a true winner.”

Based solely on the fact that Chandler singlehandedly brought defense back to Madison Square Garden — after the long-lost franchise fundamental spent almost a decade in exile — he should be a candidate for the NBA’s coveted Defensive Player of the Year award.

Members of the media vote on this award, and for the first time in six years, I won’t have a vote. If I did, Chandler would be my first-place choice.

Obviously he doesn’t have the statistics (1.5 blocks, 0.9 steals and 9.8 rebounds) to compare to other candidates, such as Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka (3.4 blocks per game and an astounding 1.2 blocks per foul) or Chris Paul’s 2.4 steals per game or LeBron James’ amazing 1.3 steals per foul. He’s not among the NBA’s top defensive rebounders, like Dwight Howard’s 10.8 per game.

But what Chandler does can only be quantified statistically by the improvement of the team since his arrival. The Knicks rank among the top defensive teams in the NBA in many categories:

• 4th in the NBA in defensive efficiency (0.967), which is a huge jump from last season when they were the ninth-worst team in this category (1.063).

• 12th in scoring defense, allowing 94.4 points per game this season, which is a 11 points better than last season’s unsightly 105.4 points per game allowed, which was the fourth-highest in the league last season.

• 10th in shooting defense, holding teams to 44.1 percent, compared to 47.2 percent last season, which was the fifth-highest last season.

• 9th in points in the Paint allowed, at 39.2 per game, compared to 45.4 percent, which was the fifth-highest last season.

But if you need individual achievements to qualify Chandler for Defensive Player of the Year candidacy, look no further than his head-to-head matchups with three all-star centers this season:

• Dwight Howard (season averages:  20.6 points, 14.4 rebounds, 3.3 turnovers): In three games, Howard was a virtual non-factor as he averaged 9.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and had 5.6 turnovers. The Knicks won two of the three games. Granted, last night’s game came with heavy distractions for Howard and the Magic, but Chandler didn’t allow Howard to have an easy time.

• Roy Hibbert (season averages: 12.9 points, 8.6 rebounds): In three games, Hibbert was just below his standard, with 12.6 points and 6.6 rebounds which is bolstered by one solid game — 24 points and 12 rebounds on March 17, in a Knicks win. In the other two, Chandler kept Hibbert in check with 4 points and 3 rebounds in the first meeting and 10 points and 5 rebounds in the most recent, this past Tuesday.

• Andrew Bynum (season averages: 18.3 points, 11.9 rebounds): In their only matchup of the season (Bynum was sitting out his suspension when the Knicks played in L.A. on Dec. 29), Chandler frustrated Bynum to 1-of-8 shooting and a 3-point, 13-rebound performance in a Knicks win on Feb. 10 that will go down as the signature win for the Linsanity era.

Let’s also factor in that Chandler has appeared in 53 of the team’s 55 games so far this season and played a bulk of those games with a painful hand injury that affected him catching the ball and finishing around the basket (and yet he still leads the league in shooting at 67.5 percent).

When he’s in the lineup, the Knicks are 28-25. Obviously a big part of making a final decision on this award is the overall success of the team. You generally don’t give any kind of Player of the Year honors to someone on a team that is below .500 and doesn’t make the playoffs.

But the reason why the Knicks can believe — even in the absence of Stoudemire and Lin — that they are a playoff team is because of Chandler. They reason why Knicks fans are buying into this team is because it plays defense, which is a personality that has developed with the perimeter efforts of rookie Iman Shumpert and reserve J.R. Smith and being emphasized by Woodson. But Chandler is unquestionably the anchor and the one who sets the standard.

If he’s not the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, he’s certainly the Knicks’ MVP.

WHEN EARL IS A PEARL

J.R. Smith has been such an enigma throughout his NBA career because he can tantalize you with talent, yet madden you with attitude. Smith once again showed the potential of just how good he could be in Thursday’s win over Orlando when he scored 15 points and recorded a career-high nine assists.

The problem with Smith has historically been a mercurial trend that ranges from so good to so bad. His altercation with Leandro Barbosa, in which he was ejected for tossing the Pacers’ guard to the floor late in the loss in Indiana, drew the usual head-shakes. His glassy eyed performance in Atlanta last week resulted in questions about his readiness to play after a night in a city many NBA players love to enjoy.

And that’s what led to a long conversation with Woodson after practice on Wednesday in Orlando. After what came off as a father-son chat, the coach candidly said, “I want his shorts pulled up.” In other words, stop being a kid and start acting like a grown man.

Smith responded not only with his best effort of the season, but also an appreciation for a coach who is taking a direct interest in his development.

“It means a lot because it’s the first time I’ve ever had verbal conversations with the head coach,” Smith said. “It gives me confidence.”

Smith has had his issues with Byron Scott and George Karl. He did like playing for Mike D’Antoniand once pointed out on Twitter D’Antoni’s words of encouragement. But with Woodson, Smith is in a unique situation. The player needs the coach just as much as the coach needs the player. Woodson is in an interim situation and success could vault that into a contract extension. Smith has a player option next season for $2.5 million, which, for his talent, is well under market value. A strong finish to this season and in the playoffs could get him a bigger contract if he opts out.

“I’m going to keep pushing him to do the right thing,” Woodson said, “. . . and hopefully the results will be wins.”

BACK TO DOIN’ WHAT TONEY DOUGLAS DO

The celebration in the visitors’ locker room at the Amway Center wasn’t strictly about a critical win for the Knicks, but the critical re-emergence of a player who could be an important piece in this final stretch of the regular season. Toney Douglas had 13 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, when the Knicks put the final touches on the blowout win over the Magic. Perhaps they weren’t important points in the result of the game, but they were important to the confidence of a player who was buried on the bench for most of the season.

“That locker room was so happy and proud for Toney because he hasn’t played a whole lot this season,” Woodson said.

“It’s good to see him back playing like that,” Carmelo Anthony added. “He was prepared when his number was called.”

Douglas, who also had six assists, five rebounds and a steal in 24:57, said it was the full-court press that helped get him into the game and get into a rhythm on offense. Douglas loves to pressure the ball and also to play passing lanes like an NFL defensive back.

The press is something Woodson said he has been wanting to implement and, with athletes like Shumpert, Smith, Douglas and Landry Fields (not to mention, once he returns, Jared Jeffries), it could be something we see more of as the season winds down.

THE DIRTY LOWDOWN

“Nothing you can’t handle, nothing you ain’t got

Put your money on the table, drive it off the lot . . .”

By next weekend, we’ll have a very good idea about the race for the final spots in the East. The Knicks have a tough home-and-home with the Bulls, starting Easter Sunday afternoon at The Garden (and, yes, Derrick Rose said he will make his comeback that day).

After that miniseries with Chicago, (which could be a preview of the first round), the Knicks will then play the Bucks in Milwaukee in the second game of a back-to-back in what will be a pivotal game. The Bucks, who will be closing out a five-game homestand, will have a day of rest after hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night.

If the Knicks lose this game, the Bucks will win the season series and own the first tiebreaker if the team’s ended with the same record.

The week ends at home against a Washington Wizards team that is playing a lot harder — and with nothing to lose. And then comes the final gauntlet, home against the Heat on April 15 and then home against the Celtics on April 17. Hey, all optimists should look at that game as a potential battle for the Atlantic Division crown.

Just drank a fifth of Kool Aid. Dare me to drive? * Eminem voice*

The schedule closes with a bit of a reprieve, as three of the last five games are against lottery-bound teams (Nets, Cavs and Bobcats).

If it comes down to one final game, the Knicks end the season at Charlotte, while the Bucks will be at Boston and the 76ers are at Detroit.

So, yes, we’ve re-attached the rear view mirror and see the Bucks are closer than they appear. But we’ve also got an eye on plummeting Philly’s parachute. Will it open in time?

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