There are no shortage of basketball reasons why the New York Knicks beat the San Antonio Spurs for the first time since Allan Houston had functioning knees. Raymond Felton had probably his best game as a pro. Carmelo Anthony provided a ton of value despite not scoring- arguably, he provided value simply by recognizing that he wasn’t allowed to score by the defense, and adjusting. Tyson Chandler was himself, Rasheed Wallace scored, J.R. Smith played at an all-star level- just tremendous play up and down the roster.
But let’s talk about how that win made the fans feel. What was the last time the Knicks played a big game, came through it exceeding expectations, and made you feel like they were among the elite teams? Was it within the past decade?
I tried to go back and identify such a game, whether it turned out to be true or not. The closest I got within the past ten years was this one, a 79-65 win over the New Jersey Nets on March 19, 2004, which made me feel as if maybe, the Knicks could defend their way into a playoff run. (Not so much.) But I didn’t come away from that game thinking they could contend for a championship playing that way.
That’s a scary place to be as a fan, primarily because it is such a long fall if I’m wrong. So the persistent doubts didn’t go away, even in the midst of the joy from last night’s triumph. (The Knicks are, after all, Woody Allen’s team.)
So what I scrambled for this morning: how long before this all counts?
The wins count, obviously. But how long before the Knicks demonstrate enough excellence that this level of play is remotely believable as the Knicks, and not the Knicks’ best streak by far?
I went back to see exactly how many teams have won six games in a row over the past three seasons. See, limit it to six to start the season, and you’re essentially imbuing those games with predictive value they don’t necessarily have.
Over those three seasons, 81 teams ran off at least six straight wins. 28 teams had streaks of exactly six straight wins, no more, no less.
Let’s start with that group of 28. Of those 28, 11 0f 12 who did it in 2009-10 made the playoffs. All five who did it in 2010-11 made the playoffs. And 9 of 11 who did it made the playoffs last year.
So winning six straight games is not random. 16 of 30 teams, or 53 percent, make the playoffs every year. 25 of 28 teams in this group made the playoffs, or 89 percent. It’s a far more elite group. And it included both the 2009-10 champions, the Lakers, and the 2010-11 champions, the Mavericks.
The percentages, as you’d imagine, don’t drop as the streaks get larger. 14 of 15 teams who won seven straight made the playoffs, including the Knicks twice, by the way. All 11 teams who won eight straight, including the 2010-11 Knicks in the heyday of Amar’e, made the playoffs. Same went for all eight teams who won nine straight, and the Heat did that twice last season en route to a championship.
You can see the pattern. Every streak beyond that, right up to Boston’s 14 straight early in 2010-11, happened to a playoff team. This is not a coincidence.
That Boston team, an older roster that won with defense, is probably a cautionary tale, though. They started the season 23-4, including an opening night win over the Miami Heat, but finished a more pedestrian 33-22. That allowed the Heat to grab home court advantage, and dispatch Boston in five games in the Eastern Conference semis.
So what does all of this mean? It means 6-0 doesn’t tell us everything. And what would be the fun in that?
But it does tell us a lot. Teams generally don’t win six games in a row during a season that doesn’t end up at least moderately successful.