These Knicks are playoff worthy

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Laugh if you want. But it's true: The New York Knicks are a playoff team.

For most in the NBA, that isn't a big deal, since half the league makes it to the postseason. But in New York, where the Knicks have given a new face to awful the past decade, there is finally hope of playing meaningful basketball games in March and April, instead of simply playing out the string.

What triggered all this optimism? Well, the Knicks, in a flat-out gutty performance, beat the Detroit Pistons 125-116 in double overtime at The Palace on Sunday afternoon.

In seasons gone by, there would have been no way, no how the Knicks would have won that game, especially coming off a matinee loss to the Atlanta Hawks at the Garden on Saturday. The Knicks had every reason to succumb at the end to the Pistons, who enjoyed a comfortable Saturday at home on the couch.

But this isn't just about beating the Pistons, who are a shell of their former selves. Even the harshest Knicks critic has to admit things are changing. No, it's not the change most fans envisioned in the summer. Then again, that's when the city was all about LeBron James coming to the Big Apple to rescue a franchise that has been drowning in losses.

But as the calendar turns from November to December, the Knicks (9-9) have as many victories as the Miami Heat's James Gang. The Knicks are in second place in the Atlantic Division behind the Boston Celtics.

"It's a long year and if we continue to improve as the season goes along then we have a great chance at [the playoffs]," Amare Stoudemire said. "We have to make sure that we continue to improve."

And if they do, and there's no reason to believe they won't, they should be position to secure a spot out of the East. Honestly, when you look at the other teams in their division, excluding the Celts, you would be hard-pressed to pick a squad better than the Knicks right now. And other than Boston, the Knicks are the only team with a winning record on the road. At 7-4 going into Sunday night, they had the most road victories in the entire NBA.

Yes, more than the Los Angeles Lakers.

Laugh if you want. This stuff matters, and it tells you a lot. Good teams win on the road. Period. The opponent doesn't matter, just the getting the win.

The Knicks have won five straight games on the road. It's a sign, a building block. "We are just showing the sort of composure that we have and that we are growing since Day 1," said point guard Raymond Felton, who had 23 points and 11 assists.

It also tells you the Knicks finally have a place to go with the basketball when it matters. The days of playing hot potato with the ball at the end is over. Stoudemire wasn't exactly what Knicks fans wanted, but he's exactly what the Knicks need.

Against the Pistons, Stoudemire had a monster game with 37 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists. "Because of Amare, because of Raymond giving us good leadership, it's easier to win on the road," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "You kind of know where the ball is going and you're going to get pretty good shots. And when that happens, you have a chance to win any place, home or away."

Yeah, yeah. We know how poorly the Knicks have played at home so far -- a lousy 2-5 record at the Garden. Still, you have to believe the Knicks will play better there.

For sure, the Knicks have gotten fat early against teams under .500. With their victory over the 6-11 Pistons, the Knicks are now 7-4 against the also-rans. There's no need to apologize. That's how good teams become good -- by beating bad teams.

"We have to beat the teams we're supposed to beat," Stoudemire said. "That's how the game is played and that's what we've been doing so far."

Now, don't get it twisted. The Knicks aren't going to the NBA Finals this season. They are still a few pieces away. But clearly, they are finally moving forward.

Rob Parker is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com.

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