The giddy vibes that came with a five-game New Year's winning streak have been replaced with frustration and doubt.
The New York Knicks fell to the Clippers on Friday, their third straight defeat. Mike Woodson's team is losing control again due to injuries, a shortage of talent -- namely no second scoring option -- and a lack of cohesiveness.
The Knicks are reverting back to that "dark place" Carmelo Anthony referred to earlier in the season.
"I don't want to go back to that place," Melo said.
This is a critical juncture in the Knicks' disappointing season. The scheduling gods did the Knicks a rare favor and gave them an eight-game homestand -- their longest since December of 1986, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
The Knicks, though, opened the stand with a 109-95 loss to the Chris Paul-less Clippers, looking like they rather be back in the Texas Triangle than Madison Square Garden. If the Knicks don't make a stand in their next six home games -- all against teams with losing records -- their season very well could slip away.
That's why Monday's MLK matinee affair against the Brooklyn Nets is massive. Both the Knicks and Nets are scratching and clawing to overcome lackluster starts. The Nets are surging at the moment, having won six of seven. They're showing fight, developing chemistry, the players all seem to know their roles and they're overcoming crippling injuries. They're coming together when they need to most -- and Deron Williams is nearing a return.
The same cannot be said of the Knicks, who have lost the past three games by an average of 17.3 points. This is a very fragile time, both physically and mentally, for the Knicks (15-25). They've lost Amar'e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin for the next two weeks due to injuries. Tyson Chandler questioned the team's strategy Friday and said the Knicks -- players and coaches -- must stick together. Woodson is wondering if some of his players, like Iman Shumpert, are losing confidence. And unlike the Nets, there's no former All-Star point guard set to return to the lineup.
Mentally, the Knicks are soft at home. They are a disturbing 7-13 at the Garden. A home loss to the Nets could be a big blow to their psyche.
Think about it: the Knicks were 3-13 back in early December and in desperate need of a confidence-building victory. They went to Brooklyn and put together one of their best outings of the season, destroying the Nets, 113-83. That win opened a stretch in which the Knicks won six of 11 games and gained confidence. Who knows what would have happened if the Knicks had lost that night in Brooklyn? Jim Dolan might've been motivated to make some changes.
The Knicks didn't lose to the Nets and eventually opened 2014 with a five-game winning streak. Now, the Knicks find themselves staring at the Nets, desperate again for a confidence-building spark.
The next six home games are against the Nets (16-22), Sixers (13-26), Bobcats (17-24), Lakers (15-25), Celtics (14-27) and Cavaliers (15-25). The problem is, the Knicks play at home as if they're the ones intimidated by the Garden crowd.
"It seems like we can't figure it out here on our home court," Anthony said. "Despite these last couple games, I think we've got a great stretch that can work in our favor if we get some things right, adjust some things and figure it out quickly. ... We've got to get back to playing good on our own home court and feeling confident and playing basketball right."
A few more home losses like Friday night, when the Clippers blew the game open with a 31-10 run in the second half, and Anthony will surely grow more and more frustrated. The free agent-to-be has no offensive help and his team routinely hears boos from the home crowd -- not exactly the recruiting pitch the Knicks had in mind. If Melo values winning at this stage in his career, he can't possibly like what he sees.
If the Knicks aren't careful, they could unravel at a time when they are supposed to be poised to take a significant step forward during a cake homestand. Their present and future (read: Anthony's future) could be impacted in these next few weeks.
Sure, it's only mid-January and there's still plenty of season left. But the Knicks' disastrous start means they simply cannot afford to keep giving home games away anymore -- especially to losing teams.
"We still have seven more home games here on this stretch," Woodson said of remaining homestand, which ends against Miami on Feb. 1. "And we got to try to win them all, I mean, before this thing slips away."
The Knicks have to make their stand Monday against the Nets. Otherwise, the lights on the Knicks' playoff hopes could fade into that dark place Melo fears most.