Insider: East's No. 2 spot up for grabs?

The Knicks and Nets will battle for the final time (in the regular season) next Monday at MSG. Al Bello/Getty Images

Last time the Nets came to the Garden, back on Dec. 19, they walked off the floor with their season spiraling out of control.

The Knicks, on the other hand, looked like one of the top teams in the NBA.

With a big win over Brooklyn at the Garden that night, the Knicks moved six games ahead of the Nets in the Atlantic Division. Brooklyn lost its third straight and was days away from losing its coach.

Things will be quite different on Monday when the Nets come to MSG for the final installment of the East River Rivalry.

Entering play Tuesday, the Knicks are just two games ahead of the hard-charging Nets.

Brooklyn has won eight of nine since interim coach P.J. Carlesimo took over for Avery Johnson. The Knicks have lost three of four and eight of 13.

So the race for the top spot in the Atlantic -- and the No. 2 seed in the East -- is very much up for grabs.

Kevin Pelton over at ESPN Insider handicaps the field for the second seed in the conference.

Based on Pelton's projections, the Knicks have a 49.5 percent chance of finishing second in the East, behind the defending champion Heat.

Mike Woodson has preached about the importance of winning the division all year, but finishing second in the conference seems of greater import.

That would allow the Knicks to avoid the Heat until the conference finals.

Pelton's projections are based on Raymond Felton coming back strong from his fractured right pinky, and the Knicks getting a defensive boost from Iman Shumpert's return.

The Knicks expect to get Shumpert back on Thursday in London when they face the Pistons. They also hope that some of their banged-up veterans (Jason Kidd) get some rest across the pond. Felton projects that he'll be back later this month, which is key, according to the Insider piece. Writes Pelton:

"The Knicks' slump more or less coincides with Raymond Felton's absence from the lineup with a broken right pinky finger; they're 4-6 without Felton, who not coincidentally has the team's third-best net plus-minus after stars Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler.

"While New York's defensive woes predate Felton's injury, the team scores 6.5 more points per 100 possessions with its lead playmaker on the floor, per NBA.com. That's enough to turn some recent L's into high-scoring W's when Felton gets back in the lineup, possibly as soon as the end of the month."

The Bulls, Pacers and Nets are also strong candidates to finish in the No. 2 spot, according to Pelton.

The Bulls have played better than expected without Derrick Rose; same goes for the Pacers without Danny Granger.

Pelton projects that the Bulls, with Rose back at the All Star Break, have a 15.9 percent chance of finishing second.

The Pacers, with Granger coming back, have a 9.6 percent chance and the Nets have a 9.2 percent shot at the No. 2 spot.

For the full Insider piece, click here.

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