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When the season began, the goal was simple: Get into the play-in tournament. In the loaded Eastern Conference, that would be a step in the right direction.
That should shift now. It’s time to think bigger. The Knicks absolutely can reach the main postseason draw without having to play themselves in.
The sixth spot has to be the goal.
The conference isn’t as good as it was expected to be, at least after the top five of the Celtics, Bucks, Nets, Cavaliers and 76ers. The Bulls and Hawks — currently clinging to play-in position — have been disappointments, a combined six games under .500. The same can be said about the Raptors, a dismal 16-22, having dropped 10 of their last 13 games. Beyond them is a bottom rung of rebuilding teams (Magic, Pistons) and a Hornets club ruined by injuries and the legal troubles of Miles Bridges. There have been rumors that the Bulls and Raptors may end up selling off key players.
Playing at a level that may garner him All-Star consideration, Julius Randle has helped the Knicks maneuver themselves into position to grab one of the East’s top six playoff seeds.
Right now, the Knicks (21-18) are in sixth place — with an identical record to the surprising Pacers, whom the Knicks recently beat on the road. Coming off a 53-win season and spot in the Eastern Conference finals, the Heat have begun to get going. Having won eight of their past 12 games — prior to Wednesday night’s road setback to the Lakers, the losses came to the Nuggets, Bulls, Pacers — Miami has to be viewed as the favorite for the sixth seed. The Pacers, led by fantastic young point guard Tyrese Haliburton, also have played well of late, beating the likes of the Clippers, Celtics and Cavaliers. They pose the other primary threat to the Knicks for the coveted No. 6 spot in the conference standings.
The next few weeks should tell us a lot. Thirteen of the Knicks’ next 14 games are against Eastern Conference opponents. That includes three games against the Raptors and one apiece against the Hawks, Heat and Pacers. Fortunately, they are getting healthy. Jalen Brunson returned from a hip injury against the Suns on Monday, and Obi Toppin was available Wednesday after missing 13 games due to a non-displaced fracture in his right fibula.
Obviously, much can change. The halfway point of the season isn’t even here yet. The Knicks were in a similar position two years ago at a middling 20-19 before taking off and finishing fourth in the East. Last season, the Celtics were 18-21 through 39 games and wound up reaching the NBA Finals.
Only four losses separate the sixth-place Knicks and the 12th-place Raptors. And with the Feb. 9 trade deadline just over a month away, what each playoff, and play-in, contender looks like may be quite different by the All-Star break.
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But the Knicks are clearly in the mix to do more than what many expected of them. Of the teams they are battling for the final non-play-in seed, they are 2-1 against the Bulls, 1-0 against the Pacers, 0-1 against the Raptors and 1-1 against the Hawks.
Sixth-place isn’t only realistic, it is attainable. It has to be the goal as the halfway point of the season nears.
Problems at home
It is confusing. It is perplexing. Somehow, the Knicks are a worse team at home than on the road.
Even with Wednesday night’s too-close-for-comfort win over the Spurs, they are just 10-10 at the Garden. No other team in the league with a winning record is .500 or worse at home.
There really isn’t a common denominator to blame. The Knicks have started well and lost games. They have been blown out. They have been unable to pull out games in crunch time.
Recently, Jalen Brunson said the Knicks needed to have more of a sense of urgency at home. That on the road they play with more emotion and edge, but at home, they get too comfortable. But the Knicks have started well in a lot of the losses at MSG, blowing double-digit leads in setbacks to the Mavericks, Thunder, Hawks and 76ers. It’s not as if the schedule has been lopsided. Eleven of their 20 home games are against teams with losing records.
The biggest problem is, of their 10 defeats at the Garden, six have been winnable games, decided by seven points or fewer. On the road, in games determined by the same margin, they are 5-3. Oddly, the Knicks have just three home victories by single figures, including Wednesday night’s.
Days off don’t sit well with Brunson
Brunson hates to miss games. It doesn’t matter if he’s physically unable to be out there. It bothers him.
Even after a break that has seemed to energize him, the Knicks’ point guard still was not thrilled about the three road games in Texas last week for which he was forced into a spectator role due to a hip injury he continues to manage.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post
“Obviously I would love to play,” he said after scoring a regular-season career-high 38 points in Wednesday’s win over the Spurs at the Garden. “I just don’t like really sitting out.”
Now, Brunson did say there were positives to sitting for a few games, particularly the rest. He’s looked fresh since returning. But that won’t change his mindset. Twice earlier this season, he was a game-time decision with minor injuries — one was a quad contusion and the other a right foot contusion — and not only played, but performed well. It really isn’t a surprise to those who know him. He didn’t miss a single game in three years at Villanova, and he appeared in 79 games for the Mavericks last season.
It is important to him to play — not only for his teammates, but for the paying customers.
“I don’t want to give anyone the notion that I’m healthy [and] I just want to take today off,” he said earlier this season. “Me as a leader, if I’m able to walk and I’m able to play, I’ve got to bring it.”