Saturday, April 14, 2012

Playoff Picture: Can the Knicks get the sixth seed?

UPDATE: Knicks still got a shot, but it's a long shot. More here.

Right now, in the Eastern Conference, there is a huge range for mobility in the playoffs. Prospects for the Knicks to move up are especially good after the Magic revealed yesterday that Dwight Howard is out with a herniated disc and might miss the rest of the regular season. Lots of things could happen in the final weeks of the season.

But let's be honest. Chicago is likely to hold on to first place, and Miami has the second spot relatively locked down. They are clearly the two best teams in the conference and have earned their spots at the top. Indiana's remaining schedule should be easy enough for them to grab that third spot, but Atlanta could easily overtake them for the third seed. The Pacers are also playing very well at this point (8-2 in their last ten games). But, for the sake of drama, none of these spots are statistically set. The only thing guaranteed is all three teams are in the playoffs.

Outside of the top three spots, the playoff picture is a bit more clouded. Boston's fourth seed isn't really in danger. They are the division leader and have a three game loss advantage over New York and Philadelphia. This means Boston would have to drop at least three of their final eight games and New York or Philadelphia sweeps their remaining seven games. In that case, Philly would get the seed outright. But the Celtics would likely win the season tiebreaker with New York but that depends on their respective conference record finish.

As I stated before, Atlanta could move up into a comfy three spot. However I don't see them going anywhere. They have three games I think they should easily win, and four games that might be very difficult for them (including New York). But as luck may have it, those four tough games are all in Atlanta. So it's hard to rule out any possibility.

Despite these viable possibilities, the top five spots can feasibly finish exactly as they are now. However the sixth spot is where things get interesting for the Knicks.

Can the Knicks legitimately move up to the sixth spot?

Not only do I think it could happen, but I think it will happen. Even with Howard in the line-up, the team is in a bad place. There is clearly some strife between their star player and head coach. Without Dwight they are different team, especially on the defensive side of the ball. In the five games Howard has missed, the team has gone 1-4 and lost games to the likes of Washington and Detroit. They've also allowed an average of 50% shooting from the field. They are only 2-3 in the last five games with Howard but those routs came at the hands of a better set of opponents (Knicks, and Mavs). 

The Magic own a three game loss advantage on the Knicks but New York has the tiebreaker. If Howard doesn't return for their final seven games, I see at least five matchups where the Magic could easily lose (Philly, Boston, Utah, Denver, Memphis). Even their winnable game against Cleveland may be difficult on the road. It is not outside the realm of possibility that they could potentially drop all seven games. Their game against Charlotte could even turn into a trap if it the Bobcats are on the brink of making history. If the Magic do drop all seven games, the Knicks would just need to win three to overtake their spot. By chance New York has three very winnable games, and four more difficult games. But the problem with this scenario is that Philly could easily sweep past New York and Orlando with a modest 4-3 finish.

If the Magic finish, according to my predictions, with two wins, then the Knicks would need to win five. Meaning they'd have to win their manageable games against Cleveland, Charlotte, and New Jersey then defeat two of their better opponents. I believe they will do just that. All are difficult matchups, but I think the Knicks have a good shot at winning against both the Clippers, and the Hawks. New York also benefits by the fact that three of these difficult games are at the Garden (Heat, Celtics, and Clippers). 

I think New York matches up the best, in terms of talent, against the Hawks. Woodson is also very familiar with the roster, and this could benefit the Knicks. The Clippers are another interesting game. New York catches LA on the second game of a road double header and on their final game of their season when they should have their playoff position locked up. Los Angeles may decide to rest their players and make an easy win for the Knicks.

What does New York have to do to get that spot?

In my opinion, Knick fans should hope the team finishes with at least five or more wins. This allows them to likely overtake the Magic (who I don't see finishing strong), and this gives them a good chance of holding off the Sixers. I really can't see them going any higher than the sixth seed. They are four games behind Atlanta, and the Celtics should be able to finish with enough wins to withstand any challenge from the Knicks. The sixth seed might be the best one for the Knicks anyways. I think New York would prefer a series against Indiana rather than rival Boston. They've handily defeated Indiana twice this season and lost once in a poor outing. Out of the top four seeds, Indiana might present the easiest matchup despite their hot streak as of late.

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