In the back-and-forth battle for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference, the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks each refuse to capitalize and take control. After beating Brooklyn on the same night Atlanta lost to Chicago, New York moved up to the eighth spot and looked to control their own destiny. 48 hours later, the jockeying for position continues as New York lost a nail-biter to Washington and Atlanta took care of business over the hapless Cavaliers. All this back and forth is enough to make the head of any fan spin. Big moves were made last night on the Eastern Conference chess board. Last night saw the Knicks lose a game they had to win, which now means that the Atlanta Hawks, who easily won, are back in eighth and hold a two-game lead in the loss column, creating an uphill climb for New York that may be too steep.
New York’s game last night was a tale of two halves. They were rolling in the first half, largely due to JR Smith not being able to miss, scoring 19 points in the first two quarters. The headlines were already written, ‘Knicks Role Players Keep Them in Playoff Contention.’ That, however, never came to be. John Wall and Bradley Beal were too quick, and hit their shots down the stretch.The game was sealed after a ninth turnover for Carmelo Anthony in the final moments.
The Atlanta Hawks played the Cleveland Cavaliers last night, easily cruising to a 117-98 win. Even after committing nine turnovers in the second quarter alone, Atlanta always had the game in hand. Mike Scott could not miss. He made 12 of this 13 shots on his way to a 26 point effort, and Jeff Teague had 20 points and 12 assists.
New York does not have an easy road the rest of the way. On Sunday they will play the defending Champion Miami Heat, who are still in the thick of battle with Indiana for the number one spot in the East. Atlanta plays Indiana on Sunday as well, both teams will have tall tasks to handle. Sunday should be a wash, as both bubble teams are expected to lose, but if one finds a way to get the win, it could mean all the difference for the final playoff spot. After Sunday New York does not play again till Friday, April 11, when they travel to Toronto and play the red-hot Raptors.
During that time off, Atlanta plays a back-to-back at home against Detroit and Boston on April 8 and 9. Those are two very important games for Atlanta because they will have played two fewer games than New York, and that will be where they catch up. If Atlanta were to win both of them, they would be a full two games up, assuming they remain two up in the loss column after Sunday. If they lose both games, New York could find themselves tied for eighth without having to play. Last night saw the Atlanta Hawks easily win and the Knicks lose what may have been their most important game of the final stretch, which means the Hawks are securely in control of their own playoff destiny.
Giving New York the benefit of the doubt, and accounting for the rest the team drastically needs, they should finish the season 4-1. The should get wins at Toronto after they are rested, versus Chicago at home with the crowd making the difference, at Brooklyn because they are resting their starters for the playoffs, and versus Toronto for the same reason. The loss will come at Miami.
Atlanta should finish out the season 4-3. They should get wins versus Detroit, Boston, Charlotte and at Milwaukee because all teams are reeling and Atlanta should have no problem taking care of business. Their losses will come at Indiana, at Brooklyn who will be wrapping up the fifth spot, and versus Miami.
If this comes to be, New York and Atlanta will be tied and a tie-breaker will be used to determine which team gets the eighth spot. Atlanta and New York split the season series, 2-2, so the next factor is conference record. If this scenario plays out, New York will be 26-26 in the conference and Atlanta will be 27-25 in the conference, giving them the playoff berth. All of this is subject to change, and any team can win on any night, but it shows how close the two are.
The two games that are most important are Atlanta’s home back-to-back against Detroit and Boston. Two wins will give them momentum, two or even one loss to a team they should beat, could be a moral breaker. The teams are so close, that if they both lose on Sunday, and the projections stand, then it means the race for the playoffs sees the Atlanta Hawks winning by one game, in the conference record, over the Knicks, which is why last night’s games were so vital to this heated race.
Commentary by Chris Dragicevich