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The Knicks are better, but must play defense

Jaime C. Harris | 4/12/2011, 5:31 p.m.

Irrespective of the Knicks' back-to-back wins against the Charlotte Bobcats at the Garden on Tuesday night and last night (Wednesday) in North Carolina, they effectively prevented a catastrophic start to their season by winning the final three games of a four-game west coast road trip that ended with a 124-115 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday.

No, victories over the Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors minus David Lee (out with an infected elbow) and Clippers are not authentic measures of the Knicks' status in the category of NBA contender or pretender.

The Kings and Clippers are awful and the Warriors were without Lee, their best frontcourt player.

What's important is that the Knicks summoned resiliency and character after their collective heart was questioned by Amare Stoudemire in the midst of a six-game losing streak that could have irreparably torn the team apart.

Instead of folding, they followed the lead of Stoudemire, who walked it liked he talked it by posting averages of 30.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per game in lifting the Knicks to three wins in a row. He had games of 17 points and seven rebounds and 20 points and four rebounds in consecutive wins over the Bobcats, which pushed the Knicks win streak to five games.

The streak placed the Knicks second in the Atlantic Division behind the Boston Celtics and seventh overall in the Eastern Conference with a record of 6-8 when the week began.

But Mike D'Antoni's crew still has glaring weaknesses that must be addressed if they expect to consistently defeat teams other than the league's weakest.

The Knicks defense remains abysmal. They were allowing 108 points per game, 28th out of 30 teams, when they faced the Bobcats at home.

They are particularly yielding on the front line, starting with Stoudemire, and witnessed Clippers rookie Blake Griffin transform into Charles Barkley in only his 14th game as a pro. The exceptional 21-year old power forward abused the Knicks for 44 points and 15 rebounds.

Against the NBA's top 12 teams, seven of which reside in the Western Conference, the Knicks will lose three out of four times with such little defensive resistance. Against the other 17, they will be no better than .500. That's just not good enough.

One of those 12, the Atlanta Hawks, will be at the Garden on Saturday for an early afternoon tip-off (1:00P.M.) and offer a credible barometer as to where the Knicks fall in the east's pecking order.