PHILADELPHIA -- The New York Knicks will be the first to tell you it really doesn't matter whether they finish sixth or seventh in the Eastern Conference. As Mike D'Antoni quipped before Wednesday night's game, it'll only make a difference if the teams meet in the conference finals because the Knicks would have home-court advantage.
That being said, it still felt a lot better for the Knicks to finish the night in sixth than to remain where they began the night, in seventh, because the latter would have been the result of a semi-epic collapse.
But it was yet another clutch shot from Carmelo Anthony -- plus some nifty on-the-job crunch time training for Toney Douglas after Chauncey Billups left with another thigh injury -- that made the move from seventh into sixth feel a little more meaningful.
On a night when both Billups and Amare Stoudemire (ankle) sustained minor injuries, the Knicks ran their winning streak to five games by defeating the Philadelphia 76ers 97-92 after frittering away all of a 19-point lead midway through the third quarter and falling behind by two points late in the fourth.
But they persevered, the final dagger coming on a 3-pointer by Anthony in the face of defender Andre Iguodala with 11.8 seconds left, and the clincher coming on a pair of free throws by Douglas with 4.8 seconds remaining to account for the final two of the 10 points he scored in the final period.
"At the end of the day we aren't going to have a choice but to be ready when it comes to the playoffs. So why not get it going right now and win some games and finish the season off strong," said Anthony, who finished with 31 points and went 5-for-8 from 3-point range. "Big road win for us, keeping the momentum, keeping the streak going."
Billups sat out the entire fourth quarter after banging his right thigh into Elton Brand's knee as he went around a pick. But he said the contusion he suffered was to the mid-thigh and was nowhere near as painful as the deep bruise he sustained to his lower-left thigh in early March when he collided with Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard's knee on an eerily similar play.
Billups' status for Friday night's road game against the New Jersey Nets is questionable, and the same can be said for Stoudemire, who sprained his left ankle when he landed atop the foot of Thaddeus Young trying to defend a breakaway as Young was single-handedly bringing the Sixers back in the fourth quarter.
With five games remaining, the Knicks are now a half-game ahead of Philadelphia. But their first-round opponent will be determined as much by how well they play, and how the Sixers play, over the next week as it will by how Boston and Miami play over that same span.
In one week, we'll know whether it'll be the Celtics or Heat playing the Knicks in New York's first playoff series in seven years.
"I though it was good for us in a couple areas," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "In the first half we played real well, and then we didn't play well. But then we finished the game off and found a way to win, and I thought our defense helped us out at the end -- and that's what we want to build on, and the rebounding, and all the in-between stuff."
The Knicks can also build on the experience gained by having Douglas run the team in the fourth quarter. Sometimes he looked good, sometimes he didn't, but his offensive bursts helped keep the Knicks from blowing this one.
Streaky as ever, Douglas managed to be the only member of the Knicks to score a field goal over the final 9:19 until Anthony knocked down his 3-pointer over Iguodala (it was originally ruled a 2-pointer but was changed after a video review) with 11.8 seconds left.
It was yet another late-game dagger from Anthony, whose 3-point proficiency (he is hitting 44 percent of his attempts since joining the Knicks) has been a pleasant surprise to the coaching staff.
"It was kind of, I don't want to say a broken play, but when I got the ball from Toney the shot clock was winding down. I saw they started to load up and I really didn't have nowhere to go," Anthony said. "There was a man in the corner and a man at the nail, but I saw Andre backing up as I was dribbling, and I just pulled up.
"As soon as I let it go, it felt good," Anthony said.
The Knicks evened the season series 2-2, and if the teams finish with the same record, New York will likely win the tiebreaker by virtue of having either a better division record or conference record.
Of late, they are looking like they will be a more formidable first-round obstacle for someone than the Sixers will be.
But just over a week ago, the exact opposite seemed true.
And if the Knicks have to shut down Billups and/or Stoudemire for more than one game, they could slip back into seventh just as quickly as they let the Sixers slip back into this game.
Not that it matters.
"We're not really fighting for too much right now, you know?" Billups said. "Six or seven, it doesn't really mean that much. We can't control who we play, it depends what they do up top."
For the Knicks, it matters whether they have a head of steam heading into the postseason. That's why this victory meant something. Not for where it put them in the standings, but where it put them confidence-wise.
They are trending upward at just the right time.