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When the Knicks beat the Celtics on Christmas Day, there were plenty of people who thought the Atlantic Division title was within their reach.
When they face off on Tuesday night at the Garden, the slim chance of pulling off such a trick hangs in the balance. The Knicks are four-and-a-half games back of the Celtics with six games to play and you don't need an advanced degree in mathematics to know that a loss on Tuesday night makes winning the division impossible.
Should the Knicks win, they'll tie the season series with the Celtics at two with the tiebreakers up for grabs. The schedule over the final five games has some landmines -- at Atlanta, a home date with the Clippers -- but it isn't impossible to imagine the Knicks running the table.
None of that matters if they don't beat the Celtics on Tuesday. The division title isn't the only thing at stake, though.
Moving up out of the bottom two slots in the playoff pecking order requires pretty much the same prescription as getting past the Celtics. The Knicks are just as far behind the Hawks and Magic as they are behind Boston, making their margin for error almost nil if they'd like to avoid a first-round date with the Heat or Bulls.
If you want to make the argument that the Knicks could handle the Bulls in a seven-game series, you'd likely find some buyers. Their heavy reliance on Derrick Rose makes things a bit easier on the Knicks defense while their brand of defense is a little less scary to the Knicks' style of play than Miami's.
Carmelo Anthony lit up Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and everyone else the Bulls threw at him over the course of two straight games last week. With it looking more and more like Hero Ball represents the Knicks' best chance of making anything out of this season, the Bulls at least provide a path to success on that front.
Only slightly less scary, though, and we saw how well Tom Thibodeau can make adjustments in thosee back-to-back games last week. The argument for being able to beat the Heat is much tougher to figure.
When you realize that the Heat didn't play well on Sunday afternoon, that the Knicks led the game in the fourth quarter and that the Knicks still lost by eight after the Heat simply flipped the switch for the final six minutes, it's very difficult to say that they would be able to beat them four out of seven times. In each of their games against the Heat this season, with three different rosters, the Knicks have had moments where they hung with the Heat.
Those moments died a quick death, though, as the Heat simply kicked into a higher gear and ran away with the game. Maybe things would have been different on Sunday with a healthy Amar'e Stoudemire, but banking on that as part of your argument for the Knicks' chances is awfully dicey given the lingering nature of back injuries.
Anthony lit up the Heat on Sunday as well, of course, but it was notable how gassed he was in the final minutes. LeBron James made him work much harder than he did against the Bulls and he couldn't quite figure out a way to make it all happen in the final minutes.
Maybe he can figure that out once or twice in a series, but four times in seven games? Tough to swallow a scenario where that happens.
If the Knicks want to avoid figuring that out, at least for a little while, it behooves them to win on Tuesday night. If they don't, the rest of the regular season has to be about finding a way to confound the expectations about matchups with the top two teams in the conference.