When the season began, the objective was straightforward: qualify for the play-in tournament. In the stacked Eastern Conference, that would be a positive development.
This should now change. It’s time to think more broadly. The Knicks can easily qualify for the postseason without playing themselves in.
The sixth position must be the target.
At least after the top five teams of the Celtics, Bucks, Nets, Cavaliers, and 76ers, the conference is not as strong as anticipated. The Bulls and Hawks, who are now clinging to a playoff spot, have been a collective six games below.500. The same can be said for the 16-22 Raptors, who have lost 10 of their last 13 games. Beyond them are rebuilding clubs (Magic, Pistons) and a Hornets team decimated by injury and Miles Bridges’ legal issues. There have been whispers that the Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors may sell off important players.
Julius Randle has helped the Knicks move into position to secure one of the top six playoff seeds in the Eastern Conference by playing at an All-Star caliber.
The Knicks are now in sixth place with a 21-18 record, the same as the Pacers, whom they just defeated on the road. Following a 53-win campaign and a trip in the Eastern Conference finals, the Heat are gaining momentum. Prior to Wednesday night’s road loss to the Lakers, the Heat had lost to the Nuggets, Bulls, and Pacers, making them the clear favorite for the sixth slot. The Pacers, headed by the phenomenal rookie point player Tyrese Haliburton, have also been doing well of late, defeating the Clippers, Celtics, and Cavaliers. They are the Knicks’ major competitor for the coveted sixth slot in the conference standings.
The coming weeks should reveal plenty. Thirteen of the next fourteen games for the Knicks are against Eastern Conference opponents. This features three contests versus the Raptors and a single contest against the Hawks, Heat, and Pacers. Thankfully, they are recovering their health. Jalen Brunson returned from a hip injury on Monday against the Suns, and Obi Toppin was available on Wednesday after missing 13 games with a non-displaced right fibula fracture.
Clearly, a great deal can change. The season’s halfway point has not yet arrived. Two years ago, the Knicks were in a similar position, with a 20-19 record, before taking off and finishing fourth in the East. Through 39 games last season, the Celtics were 18-21 and ultimately reached the NBA Finals.
Sixth-place Knicks and twelfth-place Raptors are separated by only four defeats. With the trade deadline on February 9 less than a month away, the playoff and play-in contenders’ rosters might change drastically by the All-Star break.
The Raptors of Pascal Siakam have been average on offense and defense, and are now outside of the East’s playoff play-in seeds.
However, the Knicks are obviously in the running to exceed expectations. They have a 2-1 record against the Bulls, a 1-0 record against the Pacers, a 0-1 record against the Raptors, and a 1-1 record against the Hawks.
Sixth place is not only attainable, but also plausible. It must be the objective as the season’s midpoint approaches.
issues at home
It is perplexing. It is confusing. The Knicks perform worse at home than they do on the road.
Even with Wednesday’s uncomfortably close victory over the Spurs, they are 10-10 at the Garden. No other league team has a winning record except. in excess of 500 at home.
There is no actual common factor to blame. The Knicks have dropped games despite a strong start. They have been obliterated. They have been unable to win games in crucial situations.
This season, Sixers center Joel Embiid celebrates another away team’s victory at Madison Square Garden.
Recently, Jalen Brunson stated that the Knicks needed to play with greater intensity at home. That when they are on the road they play with more emotion and edge, but when they are at home they become too comfortable. However, the Knicks have blown double-digit leads in losses to the Mavericks, Thunder, Hawks, and 76ers at Madison Square Garden. It is not as though the schedule has been imbalanced. Eleven of their twenty home games are against losing teams.
Six of their ten losses at Madison Square Garden have been winnable contests, decided by seven points or fewer. They are 5-3 on the road in games decided by the same margin. Including Wednesday night, the Knicks have only three home victories by a single-digit margin.
Brunson dislikes having days off.
Brunson dislikes missing games. It makes no difference if he is physically unable to be there. It irritates him.
Even after a respite that appeared to reinvigorate him, the Knicks’ point guard was not enthusiastic about sitting out the three road games in Texas last week owing to a hip issue he continues to manage.
A week after returning from a hip injury, Jalen Brunson scores a regular-season career-high 38 points by shooting over the Spurs defenders.
“Obviously I would want to play,” he said after scoring a career-high 38 points against the Spurs at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. Simply, I dislike sitting outside.
Now, Brunson acknowledged that there were benefits to missing a few games, particularly rest. He has appeared revitalized since his comeback. However, this will not alter his thinking. Earlier in the season, he was a game-time decision with minor injuries, including a quad contusion and a right foot bruise, and he not only participated, but also performed admirably. Those who know him well should not be surprised. In his three years at Villanova, he never missed a game, and he appeared in 79 games with the Mavericks last season.
It is crucial to him to play, not only for the sake of his teammates, but also for the sake of the paying audience.
“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. “As a leader, I must bring it if I am able to walk and play.”