Tom Thibodeau will not allow complacency to set in, but the Knicks deserve a sigh of relief and happiness going into their season’s longest road trip.
When the second half of the schedule was revealed, it seemed as if this would be the stretch that would either make or break New York’s postseason hopes, even though it was just a play-in tournament. To be honest, the majority believed it was the reason the Knicks were unable to end their playoff drought.
However, they will enter this six-game, ten-day tour of the Western Conference in sole possession of fourth place in the conference, fresh off a 10-game winning streak.
“Right now, we’re in a nice spot,” RJ Barrett said. “I believe that the ball is in our court. At the moment, we’re attempting to manage our own destiny.”
However, the games are important. The Knicks remain in the thick of things, with a greater chance of falling out of the Top 3 than of cracking it. The trip begins comfortably enough with the Rockets and Grizzlies playing back-to-back games starting Sunday, but then they face the gauntlet — at the Nuggets (and MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic), at the Suns (tied for the NBA’s best record), at the Clippers (Kawhi Leonard will have two days off to prepare for this game), and at the Lakers (LeBron and Anthony Davis are back from their injuries).
The good news for the Knicks is that it’s difficult to see them falling out of the East’s Top 10, which guarantees them a place in the play-in tournament at the very least. The bad news is that New York leads a compact group of Eastern Conference teams ranked 4-through-7 (Knicks, Hawks, Celtics, Heat), with no more than two and a half games separating the top and bottom teams going into Saturday’s games.
What does this mean for the Knicks? It’s a two-pronged assault.
The most critical goal is to avoid a play-in game, which requires finishing in the Top 6. Despite a tough schedule, the Knicks are in good shape. The remaining portion is seeding. If the top of the East remains stable, finishing fourth or fifth makes sense because it prevents meeting either the Nets, Sixers, or Bucks in the first round.
The Knicks finished 2-7 against those opponents (and one victory was against a severely undermanned Bucks squad). The Hawks are the most likely first-round opponent, purely on the basis of experience.
Thibodeau is remaining focused on the immediate task at hand. This attitude has carried them this far.
“I believe that the most critical aspect is to establish a schedule for preparing for each game. And don’t stray from it,” the coach instructed. “So just get to know your opponent well, prepare for that game, and don’t think about the game after that. Avoid looking backwards. I’m still not interested in operating in reverse. Simply concentrate on what is directly in front of us.”
WHEN IS ROBINSON COMING BACK?
Mitchell Robinson is still recovering from his broken foot more than a month after surgery, but has not resumed basketball practices, according to Thibodeau.
Robinson’s return date is unknown, but it’s unlikely he’ll return during the regular season.
“The standard protocols we’ve followed since the initial surgery. Thus, it is almost identical. Simply have to go through the motions. And he is still a spectator on the court,” Thibodeau said. “Then that will be the next step. Thus, once he is able to perform on the court, we will receive an update from the medical staff. However, the healing process is proceeding as expected. He simply needs to be careful and persevere.”
Robinson has been out for 17 games as a result of the injury. His absence has been compensated for by Nerlens Noel’s emergence as a dependable rim protector.
“I’m not going to set a time limit on it. To be completely candid, I have no idea. That is entirely up to the physicians, coaches, and other medical personnel. We are not willing to take any risks. As a result, we’re going to be extremely careful and wait until he’s fully healed before getting him back on the road.”
Fast DEVELOPS DEEP
Immanuel Quickley has extended his range well beyond the three-point line, joining Steph Curry and Dame Lillard in hoisting shots that were once considered wasteful in the NBA.
Recently, considering the lack of time to set up for a closer look, the rookie connected on two of those shots, and Thibodeau encourages it.
“I’m not interested in putting a lid on it,” the coach said. “At the start of the season, I said to you guys that I was just watching him fire. I see how he plays and what the league is doing, and if he is comfortable shooting from the three, we also have a four-point line at our practice center, and he shoots just as well from there. As a result, we’d like him to read the defense. When he has an opportunity, and sometimes during transformation, those are the best looks he’ll receive. Especially when teams blitz him. As a result, we have a high degree of faith in his shooting. That is his talent.”