The New York Knicks are the NBA Atlantic Division champions. They're poised to head into the league playoffs with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, after the defending NBA champions Miami Heat. And they've won 13 of their last 14 games.
These are all sentences nobody could have expected to see in print at, say, the beginning of the 2011-12 NBA season. But Coach Mike Woodson has taken one of the scrappiest -- and oldest -- groups of players in the league and created a monster. The question now: How far can they go?
There are a number of factors to consider when looking at the Knicks' chances in the 2013 NBA Playoffs, and we've broken some of them down for you below.
1. Health: The Knicks are a great team when everyone is healthy. Carmelo Anthony is a superstar, Tyson Chandler smashes the boards and provides cool-headed leadership, Amare Stoudemire has been good this year when he wasn't sidelined.
More important, the Knicks have one of the deepest reserves of contributing nonstar players in the league as well, from sharpshooter Steve Novak to guys who've flowered this year such as J.R. Smith, Chris Copeland and Iman Shumpert.
It's great to be Woodson, with this much talent at his disposal, and even if he has a player or two out, he's still got a great squad. But right now, Chandler, Stoudemire, Rasheed Wallace and Kenyon Martin are all out with injuries. Melo has missed a few games this season to lingering pain issues, and it's seemed like every time you watch a Knicks game, a different player goes down hurt.
It will be essential that the New York squad gets healthy before the playoffs begin -- and that its members stay healthy through the end if they want to remain in the running. It may not be as essential as it is for more star-centered teams, but it's key nonetheless.
2. Streak: The Knicks won 13 games in a row before losing to the Chicago Bulls Thursday night. They were the hottest team in the country, and they still likely are, but these things have strange half-lives.
The Heat had a long streak this season that seemed like it would never end. But ever since finally losing -- to the Bulls as well -- LeBron James and Co. have been unable to regain the same level of fire and intensity that characterized their epic 27-win run.
The Knicks are now in danger of a similar future, only for them it comes at the very worst point in the season. To have the demise of a lengthy run kill their momentum nine days before the playoffs begin could doom the Knicks to a poor post-season, or even another first-round exit.
It's important that Woodson coach his guys past their first loss in weeks and get their spirits and confidence up as New York looks to the playoffs.
3. Competition: The Knicks are sitting pretty in the No. 2 spot in the East behind the Heat (we'll get to them in a second.) The Indiana Pacers are good but vanquishable. The Boston Celtics are finally showing their age, and the loss of Ray Allen hasn't been good for them, to say the least. And what was that about the Brooklyn Nets?
It's a good place to be for the Knicks to be, but the two teams in the East that they have to worry about most are the hardscrabble Bulls and, of course, the dominant Heat.
The Bulls and Knicks have appeared pretty evenly matched this year, although Thursday's win will put a kick in Chicago's step if the two teams were to meet in the playoffs. And with Derrick Rose perpetually hurt, the Knicks will either not have to worry about the Bulls' star player or be facing a team that's adjusting yet again to having him back on the court.
4. Miami: It's the Heat who the Knicks should be most worried about. They just won a ring. They have LeBron. They are amazing this year. But they are beatable, and the Knicks have been able to whip up the magical Heat-killing sauce multiple times this season.
The last time the two teams met, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra benched LeBron and Dwyane Wade in a psych-out move aimed at not allowing the Knicks the pleasure of beating them going into the playoffs.
But earlier this season, the Knicks beat James and crew by 20 points twice. They can demolish the Heat when they're on their game, but therein lies the question: Which version of the Knicks will show up in the 2013 NBA Playoffs?