The annual NBA All-Star break arrived for the Knicks last night (Wednesday) following their 50th game of the season as they hosted the Toronto Raptors at the Garden. The Knicks were 32-17 prior to facing the Raptors and are second overall in the Eastern Conference to the Miami Heat.

In some respects, head coach Mike Woodson’s crew has exceeded expectations and created optimism among a starving fan base that they have the goods to make a run at a title. The Knicks haven’t won a league championship since 1973 and last made it to the Finals in 1999. To return and have the chance to victoriously hoist the 14.5-pound sterling silver Larry O’ Brien Trophy, there are some essential elements of the team that must be strengthened and paramount goals which need to be met. First the latter. The Knicks must win the Atlantic Division and earn at worst a No. 2 seed to avoid a series with the presumptive top seed Heat until the conference finals. With 32 games remaining for both the Knicks and the Heat, untold variables, with injuries always being the most obvious determinant, could dramatically alter their regular season outcomes.

Point given, a second seed guarantees the Knicks nothing. Not with the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls arguably every bit as capable of making the Heat’s reign a one-year blur. With the return of 2012 All-Star Danny Granger to the Pacers’ lineup and 2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose soon to be inserted into the Bulls’ rotation, both having missed over half the season with injuries, the Knicks’ path to the conference finals is seemingly more treacherous. Moreover, the mental factor is palpable. The Pacers and Bulls feel they are physically tougher than the Heat and are convinced they can defeat them in a series. The Knicks have no such belief and are subconsciously uncertain about their ability to slow down LeBron James, even though Carmelo Anthony has gone toe-to-toe with him since their days as high schoolers.

If the Knicks are to be one of the NBA’s last four teams standing, they have to significantly improve their perimeter defense, first and foremost by consistently limiting opposing guards’ penetration. If they can shore up this deficiency and achieve steady offensive continuity, a deep playoff charge awaits them.