For two months, the New York Knicks were the toast of Manhattan. The won their first six games, and 18 of their first 23. They were moving the ball, playing strong defence and winning.
Magic Johnson praised them on national television, warning all that the "Knicks are for real". Carmelo Anthony, the mercurial forward, finally seemed a leader as well as a scoring machine. By the middle of December the Knicks had a five-game division lead.
And now they are just another team: perfectly mediocre.
Since breaking out to that conference-best 18-5 mark, they have gone 15-15. And they got to that 30-game break-even mark with a 99-93 win at home on Sunday against a Philadelphia 76ers team who have lost 17 of their last 20 road games.
Still, that was a few light years better than Wednesday, when they were destroyed by the Indiana Pacers, 125-91.
"We've got to get it together if we want to accomplish the things that we've talked about," said Tyson Chandler, the centre. "We've got to play a lot better than this. When you get beat like this, it's everybody from the top down."
The fade has followers perplexed. They love basketball almost as much as winning, in New York. Now no one is certain what the answer is.
"We've got to get over this hump," Anthony said. "We've hit a bad stretch."
The defeats have ignited cries for Mike Woodson, the Knicks coach, to change his line-up. Since the powerful forward Amar'e Stoudemire returned from a knee injury on New Year's Day, he has been exclusively a bench player. He is averaging 13.3 points and 5.0 rebounds, well off his career averages of 21.3 points and 8.6 rebounds.
Stoudemire has been careful not to make any demands about starting.
"I can't call it," Stoudemire said. "I'm just playing my role and trying to be the best at it. That's all I can do."
Confidence is not an issue, though, if you believe the Knicks.
"We got plenty of swagger, we may have too much swag," Stoudemire was quoted as saying by the New York Post.
"We got to get more greedy, from the standpoint of wanting to defend, wanting to win and having a sense of urgency. We have to want to win. We got to have the mentality to want to win. It don't matter if it looks good or not. We just got to get it done. It's not a great feeling right now."
They have remained top of the Atlantic Division largely because no other team has managed to mount a challenge. But a team that has not advanced past the first round of the play-offs in the new millennium are giving signs of a quick play-offs exit again.
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