01/19/2007 11:52 AM ET
Who's the boss? Starbury or the Kidd?
Knicks, Nets are in unlikely competition for division lead
By Larry Fleisher / SNY.tv
Jason Kidd enters Madison Square Garden in his first game since filing for divorce. (AP)

This season's Atlantic Division in the NBA has been among the worst in sports history, providing material for aspiring comedians and fodder for discussions on mediocrity. The fact that no team is better than .500 has allowed the Knicks to stay within a few steps of first place, a spot shared by the Toronto Raptors and, New York's Friday opponent at Madison Square Garden, the Nets.

The Knicks have a record that puts them on pace for about 34 to 35 wins, which may be enough to win the Atlantic, although many think the Nets will eventually get it going and finish above .500.

The Nets are just one percentage point behind Toronto and appear to be getting their act together by winning seven of their last nine games. Previous slow starts under coach Lawrence Frank were usually over by mid-December, but this one has seen them with more losses than wins since November 22.

In the five years since acquiring Jason Kidd, the Nets have had few problems with the Knicks. Including a four-game sweep in the 2004 playoffs, the Nets have won 20 of 24 meetings and 10 of 12 visits to New York.

In fact, a Nets victory in January 2005 began a year and a half of misery for the Knicks. At the end of December 2004, the Knicks were 16-13 and two games up on the Nets. Then Stephon Marbury declared he was the best point guard in the NBA and, in the first game of 2005, the Nets rolled to another win at the Garden. That set the Knicks in a downward spiral from which they've yet to emerge.

The gap between the cross-river rivals and future interborough foes might be dwindling. That might explain why, in the final preseason game at Continental Airlines Arena, things became heated. Players were exchanging shoves and coaching staffs traded heated words in garbage time.

After that game, coach Isiah Thomas talked about how the Knicks will not be bullied in their efforts to improve.

"We're coming from a long ways down in this league and we've got to scratch and we've got to fight," he said on October 27. "We've got to claw. When you play against the better teams in this league, they don't like the teams on the bottom giving them a hard time. But our job is to one day get where they are and you have to give them a hard time and hope they don't take it personally."

Nearly three months later, the Knicks are giving visitors to MSG a hard time. Since opening up 4-10, they have won six of seven at home, including Monday's 102-97 win over Sacramento.

New York played another thriller Wednesday but came up short. Marbury held Gilbert Arenas to 16 points but the double-teams allowed Caron Butler to get free for the game-winning dunk in the Knicks' 99-98 loss.

Wednesday's loss began a difficult stretch for the Knicks. Before January ends, they will have played two games against the Heat, who will likely have Shaquille O'Neal back. They will also host the league-leading Suns and the surprising Lakers. Tonight's matchup with New Jersey may be one of the more winnable games for Isiah's team for the rest of the month.

Larry Fleisher is a contributor to SNY.tv.
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