Nate-less Knicks surging toward eighth


NEW YORK -- The crowd kept chanting "We want Nate."

A better idea would have been "We want eight." As in: The eighth seed.

Because with the way things stand now for the New York Knicks, their fans have a better chance of seeing their team in the playoffs than they do of having that fan favorite, Nate "N8" Robinson, spend many more meaningful minutes on the court.

Sunday marked the third consecutive DNP-CD for Robinson, whose knucklehead antics appear to have earned him a niche as a full-time tenant in coach Mike D'Antoni's doghouse.

"I don't know. It's not going to change anything. It is what is it," D'Antoni said of the chants for Robinson, which erupted at least a half dozen times during the course of New York's 106-97 victory Sunday afternoon over the New Jersey Nets.

The win was the third in four games for New York, allowing them to climb ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers in the conference standings. And with the struggles of Toronto, Chicago and Detroit -- three Eastern teams that were expected to be in the thick of the hunt for postseason contention but are all well below .500 -- the notion of making the playoffs no longer qualifies as the unfunny joke it would have constituted just a week ago.

"You know, it started probably about seven or eight games ago. We didn't win, but we played Boston well here, we played Denver well, Lakers wasn't too bad -- we were playing against real good teams, Orlando a couple times, we just didn't get the wins," D'Antoni said. "Offensively we're just much smoother, taking better shots and shooting a higher percentage, and any time we shoot it around 48-50 percent you're going to have a chance to win every night.

"Now, our defense has to get better if we want to make the playoffs or whatever ... " D'Antoni said, stopping mid-sentence to interrupt himself at his use of the "p" word. " ... now, now, no, no, again, we've got a long way to go. But if we want to do that, our defense is going to have to get a lot better, and we'll keep working on it and see what happens."

New York held New Jersey to just 18 points in the third and also the fourth quarter, with much of the credit going to D'Antoni for employing a zone defense against the Nets' speedy three-guard alignment of Devin Harris, Keyon Dooling and Rafer Alston.

But New Jersey entered the game ranked last in the NBA in points (87.1), shooting percentage (.406), assists (15.9) and 3-point percentage (.279), and the Nets were still able to better all four of those numbers considerably (they shot 50 percent overall and 31 percent on 3s, and scored 10 more points and dished seven more assists than usual) -- a testament to the point D'Antoni was making about defense.

The Knicks remain severely undersized on the interior and are at a disadvantage on the boards nearly every night (they rank 29th in the NBA in blocks, trailing only Minnesota), meaning effort under the glass from someone other than Lee is going to make every bit as much of a difference as the coaching staff coming up with effective defensive schemes, e.g. Sunday's use of a zone.

Al Harrington grabbed 14 boards, two shy of his career high ("Nobody boxed nobody out today, so I could just go in and get rebounds. Hope y'all enjoyed it, because I don't know if you're going to get another one," Harrington said), and scored 26 points to support Larry Hughes' 25 and David Lee's 24.

D'Antoni went with basically a seven-man rotation (giving rookie point guard Toney Douglas 5 1/2 minutes of run, too), and inserted Hughes in place of Wilson Chandler to start the second half after the Knicks went to the locker room trailing 61-53.

The second half was a different story -- and now, so too are the Knicks, just seven days after they dropped to 3-14.

"It's not hard for us. We still got to go until we're mathematically out of it, you know what I'm saying?" Harrington said. "The biggest thing I was saying to the guys (at halftime) was 'We can't lose to the Nets.' No disrespect to them, but if we want to start taking steps forward and going in the right direction, we've got to win games against teams like the Nets."

That they did, meaning they are no longer the 14th best team in the 15-team East.

They're 13th now, and the No. 8 that really matters is the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference.

And that other No. 8? Robinson heard the chants, but he had nothing remotely meaningful to say about them. At this point in his Knicks career, no matter how often or how loud the fans chant his name, Robinson is now about as important to their playoff aspirations as Darko Milicic.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.