GREENBURGH, N.Y. — The Celtics, the Heat and the Knicks. One of those just doesn’t seem to belong with the others.
The Knicks insist that they do.
“I don’t understand why there’s questions about, “Are we there yet?’” point guard Raymond Felton said Tuesday. “We’re doing better than any other team in the league.”
Not quite. But they will be if they sweep two huge games at Madison Square Garden this week.
Boston, Miami and New York are the three NBA teams currently riding winning streaks of eight games or longer, and the Knicks face the other two in a three-night span. Beaten up for so long, it’s their chance to finally trade punches with the heavyweights again.
They host the Celtics, winners of 10 straight and leading the Eastern Conference with a 19-4 record, on Wednesday. Two nights later, it’s LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat, whose streak would also be at 10 assuming they beat the same Cavaliers team they pummeled in Cleveland when James’ old teammates come to Miami on Wednesday.
Both games will be televised by ESPN — the latter also the NBA’s first on ESPN 3D — a rare chance in the spotlight for a Knicks team that has been largely ignored on the court in recent years. Both had built-in story lines: the Boston-New York rivalry, and James’ first trip to Madison Square Garden since spurning the Knicks in free agency, and now seem a little more intriguing with the Knicks playing well enough to believe they can win them.
“I think any game with meaning, and obviously, for them, it’s going to have a lot more meaning. They’re probably going to be extremely fired up for this game and I’m hoping our guys can match that intensity,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “Any time a game has energy, it’s great. It’s really great for us because finding ways to get them up is always nice when you don’t have to do it. We’ll just let the New York people do it by what they’ll say over the next couple of days.”
The Knicks have won eight in a row and 13 of 14, and their 16-9 record is their best through 25 games since they were 18-7 in 1996-97. Usually already out of the Atlantic Division race — they were already an average of 11 games out of first place the last two years entering play on Dec. 15, according to STATS, LLC., they’re just four games back of the Celtics.
Most of the Knicks’ success has come during a weak portion of their schedule. Now Amare Stoudemire, who’s scored 30 points in a franchise-record eight straight games, tests himself against Kevin Garnett and a powerful frontcourt that could be rejoined by Shaquille O’Neal after a two-game absence with a calf injury. Felton tries to keep up his stellar play against a top point guard in Rajon Rondo.
The Celtics beat the Knicks in the first week of the season, and Stoudemire said there’s “no question” whom New York considers the top team in the conference.
“They obviously have won a championship a couple of years prior, went to the finals last year, so they’re hands-down the team to beat in the East,” Stoudemire said.
But Stoudemire cautioned there’s no rivalry yet, since the Knicks are just starting to gain some respect. He’ll get no argument from the Celtics.
“We have bigger goals than winning streaks,” forward Paul Pierce said. “I didn’t know we had a rivalry going. If that’s what you all want, if it’s going sell more tickets, get more viewers, I guess so. You (media) all make up the rivalry, we don’t, to be honest. At the end of the day, we’re playing for championships, not certain opponents.”
The Knicks had a similar high-profile home schedule the first week of February 2009, and they played the part of a mid-major taking its guaranteed money for a beating by the big boys. Kobe Bryant scored a building-record 61 points in a Lakers win on Monday, James had 52 and just missed a triple-double two nights later, and the Celtics closed out the week by beating the Knicks on Friday.
“I thought we played well, we couldn’t come up with the wins because obviously those teams were better,” Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni said. “And they come in the Garden, they want to look good, and they did look good. And when that happens, usually the best team wins and that’s what happened the last couple of years. Hopefully it’s different this time.”
D’Antoni played in plenty of meaningful matchups when he was in Phoenix, from the Lakers to Dallas or San Antonio. He said there is such a thing as big games in the regular season, but only to an extent.
“There is if you win them, there isn’t if you lose them, because then you’ll spin it, ‘Well, yeah, we’ve got plenty of time,’” he said. “So this is not a make or break either way to be honest with you. This is great entertainment, great game, (but) it’s one game in the march toward the playoffs and we want to get there. It still means one game now.”