The New York Knicks have about a snowball's chance in you-know-what of getting to the NBA Finals in June, let alone winning the championship. Let's get that out of the way first.
They are in the puberty stages of learning how to play defense, now that Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups have arrived. They still rely too much on perimeter shooting, illuminating their lack of faith in their interior game. Basically, the Knicks are a lesser version of their boys in South Beach, the Miami Heat. They're nothing like the Orlando Magic, boasting the presence of Dwight Howard. The Boston Celtics still have too much poise, experience and team defense to be dismissed, and Derrick Rose actually has the Chicago Bulls looking like favorites in the Eastern Conference right now.
To translate, in a sensible basketball world, the Knicks are at best a fifth seed in the playoffs. It means they'll play one of the aforementioned, which means their season probably will end in April -- as usual. But in a city where dreams are made, where fantasies become reality amid the bright lights of Broadway, you have a right to believe in the hype if you want to. The question is: How crazy is it to think the Knicks could throw a parade down the Canyon of Heroes this June?
"I didn't come just to be in New York," Anthony said, the night of his debut performance in a Knicks uniform versus the Milwaukee Bucks. "I came here because it's home. Because I've dreamed of being here, of winning, of bringing something special to this town. Why else would I be here? Why else would anyone want to come here?"
It's good that Melo feels that way because that's precisely what everyone expects from a 6-foot-8, 245-pound forward with an offensive game recognized as, arguably, the NBA's best. The reason? Because great achievements are usually instigated by stars hell-bent on winning more so than on grasping the acclaim that comes with the success winning breeds.
Nobody believed the Knicks would advance to the NBA Finals in 1999, but Larry Johnson did. So did Allan Houston. So did Latrell Sprewell, Marcus Camby and the rest of a crew playing without the services of injured Patrick Ewing. They didn't care what anyone else thought, much like the miniature, subpar-looking bunch of Golden State Warriors in 2007, who got in the face of Dirk Nowitzki and punked him by screaming, "You ain't no damn league MVP." They then sent the Dallas Mavericks and their league-best regular-season record home in six first-round games.
Heart means something, especially in Gotham City, where the only thing worse than a scrub is someone devoid of that thumping sound inside the chest. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade don't just beat you, they snatch your heart. So does Howard. So does Boston's defense, inspired by Kevin Garnett's constant harping and vituperations. And Rose's speed and overall gifts are capable of snatching anyone's heart, in spite of his aura of timidity.
Heart is what got the Knicks over the hump in Miami on Sunday night. It's what made Melo drop 29 points, ask to defend LeBron, then play the best defense we've seen him play all season. It's what inspired Amare Stoudemire to block James' shot in the waning moments, flex his muscles like Hulk Hogan, then stick his jersey out, displaying N-E-W Y-O-R-K for the world to see.
Sure, Mike D'Antoni seems uncharacteristically reserved, knowing he's now in possession of a point guard capable of running his team on the floor about as well as the coach does from the sideline. Sure, Billups' arrival -- with a résumé that includes seven straight trips to the conference finals as a floor leader, two straight trips to the Finals and an NBA championship -- helps the Knicks immensely. Sightings of Bill Walker and Shawne Williams, along with an emerging Toney Douglas, don't hurt, either. But in the end, what does any of it mean without an unwavering determination to knock off all comers?
Miami didn't assemble its team to go home early. Orlando didn't make the blockbuster deal that brought Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson to Disney World to concede to its intrastate rival or anyone else. The Celtics didn't bring Shaquille O'Neal to Beantown to watch Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum play someone else in the Finals while Kobe Bryant laughs just loud enough for Shaq to hear. And Chicago hasn't kept quiet because it's interested in being demure, bowing to teams presumed better on paper in front of a city still familiar with the scent of greatness Michael Jordan left behind.
"No doubt, you gotta believe," Billups said last week. "Definitely, if you want to beat the teams we'll probably run into. We've got a ways to go, but obviously there's talent on this team. The city's behind us. If we get as good as we should, anything can happen. That's all we can ask for."