Philadelphia, PA – Who would have thought, just two months ago, the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers could be on the road for the first round of the NBA playoffs.
That is becoming a very real possibility for both squads, although why they are in these new positions varies.
The Knicks began this season with an 18-5 record. They beat the Miami Heat twice during that span and the chatter was, they are a legit threat to the defending champs in the East.
They are 20-20 since Dec. 15. Their lead in the Atlantic Division is down to a single game over the Brooklyn Nets and the Knicks are 3 1/2 games ahead of the Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks for the fifth seed.
A 3 1/2-game margin seems pretty tough to lose with less than 20 games to go, but injuries are piling up at a disconcerting rate for the Knicks.
Carmelo Anthony has been in and out of the lineup the last week with a knee issue. He left his return to the Denver in the third quarter and announced he was heading back to New York to have his knee drained.
"I was always concerned, I was just being naive to myself," Anthony said Wednesday after the Nuggets game. "You just come a point where you've got to figure it out, get to the bottom of it and move on."
Amare Stoudemire will most likely miss the remainder of the regular season after his second knee debridement procedure of the season. He had it done to his left knee in October and now it's the right one.
Stoudemire played well in his bench role and his minutes were limited to 30 per night. Once Anthony got hobbled, Stoudemire played a little more and what happened? Surgery is the answer.
And, now, reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler is down after a left knee contusion. He missed Thursday's game and is listed as questionable.
The Knicks have dropped three in a row and four of five.
"We have to somehow get out of this slide," head coach Mike Woodson said after a Thursday loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Injuries happen and when they take down your "best" frontline, that's hard to overcome. But the Knicks have been sliding since long before Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler all went down.
Remember that the Knicks started the season as the oldest team in the NBA by miles. They are older than fire with Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Rasheed Wallace and Kurt Thomas. The age thing may be catching up to the Knicks finally now that we are in the stretch run.
Wallace has been out a while and relying on him this season would be foolish. What the Knicks got out of him earlier was probably more than expected, but with these injuries, Kidd and Kenyon Martin, signed just a few weeks ago, both played over 30 minutes against Portland. Camby played a two ticks over 19 minutes.
Will they be able to maintain those kind of minutes successfully? That's a fair question and to think they could might be naive.
Twelve of New York's last 19 games are against teams either in the playoffs as of now, or right on the cusp. Extended absences of those three key players will probably cost the Knicks the Atlantic Division title. Realistically, it could cost them home-court advantage in the first round.
If the Clippers lose out on a home series in the first round, it won't totally be on them. The Memphis Grizzlies have inched past them for third and the Griz have won six in a row and 14 of their last 15.
The Clip show is just one game ahead of the Denver Nuggets for fourth. All Denver has done is win 10 in a row, so if L.A. hits the road for Game 1 of the playoffs, there's a fairly legitimate reason.
But the Clippers are only 13-12 in their last 25 dating back to mid-January. That's a large enough sample size to say that something might be amiss.
Defense would be the answer.
Since the All-Star break, the Clippers are surrendering 98.3 points per game on 47.9 percent shooting. That's a staggeringly high opponents field-goal percentage and the points average is way up from earlier in the season.
"When we were winning games, we had that streak going and before that, I thought the way we played defensively was aggressive," forward Blake Griffin said. "We messed up at times, our rotations weren't great at times, but I thought we did a great job of forcing teams to figure out what they were going to do against our defense."
When the Clippers defense is working, it can be very good. Chris Paul is not a great man-to-man defender, but he might be the best in the league at playing the passing lanes.
Eric Bledsoe is a good defender. Matt Barnes isn't shabby. DeAndre Jordan is 11th in the league in blocked shots. There are tools there to be a good defensive team, but they need to put on display.
"If you don't have the grit, then you're not going to win the wars, plain and simple," Lamar Odom said.
Unlike the Knicks, the Clippers have a fairly easy schedule the rest of the way. Only seven of their last 16 opponents are in the playoffs currently, so they have time to get things correct while playing some JV teams.
There is still time left for these two teams to get things back on track. But both of these squads definitely need some work.
Realistically, neither team was a legitimate NBA championship contender, even as far back as December. The Knicks had to contend with the Heat and the Clippers had the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder hindering their path.
Both teams have warts and those blemishes are being exacerbated late in the season. It's still pretty remarkable how good these teams looked in the first half compared to now.