With each passing game, and each selfless passing sequence, we learn more about the Knicks and their increasingly realistic quest to secure a proper postseason berth — thereby avoiding the 7-10 play-in scenarios — in the Eastern Conference.
Consider their four games over the next seven days one of the most important remaining weeks on their regular-season slate, bookended by two meetings with the Celtics — the team with the best record in the NBA — Monday night at the Garden and a visit Sunday to Boston.
In between those two barometer games, the Knicks will face the two teams closest to them in the East’s pecking order: the drastically altered Nets on Wednesday at the Garden and the Heat on Friday in Miami.
The Nets’ loss at the buzzer Sunday in Atlanta — their fourth defeat in six games since the blockbuster jettisoning of stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving before the trade deadline — dropped them into a virtual tie with the Knicks for the No. 5 and No. 6 playoff positions in the East.
The Nets (34-26) still are technically percentage points ahead, but Wednesday’s head-to-head showdown represents a golden opportunity for the Knicks (35-27) to jump their fading outer-borough rivals in the standings.
The Knicks also suddenly have moved 2 ½ games ahead of the Heat, who have dropped four games in a row — matching their season-high — ahead of a home-and-home set against the 76ers beginning Monday in Philadelphia.
The Celtics entered Sunday’s league action as the only team in the league with more road wins (20) than the Knicks have managed this season (18-12). Tom Thibodeau’s squad posted its signature victory of the season at TD Garden in late January, a 120-117 overtime thriller after the Celtics had erased a 13-point deficit with eight minutes remaining in regulation.
The Knicks have upgraded their roster since that meeting, however, sporting a 5-0 record since heartbeat guard Josh Hart arrived at the trade deadline earlier this month. Hart has averaged 14.2 points and 5.4 rebounds with a .610 shooting percentage off the bench, not to mention the various intangibles that already have earned Thibodeau’s trust to close games in the fourth quarter.
“What we’re seeing is just that he does a little bit of everything well,” Thibodeau said of Hart following Saturday’s win over New Orleans. “His defense, his racing the ball up the floor, moving without the ball, guarding multiple positions, getting to loose balls, making tough plays. There’s not a stat for how hard you bust it to get back [on defense]. But there’s a lot of bite to him. It gives our team a lot more toughness, and we need that.”
It’s admittedly a small sample, but Hart’s net rating as a Knick has been off the charts thus far. The team’s point differential is plus-19.7 per 100 possessions while the Villanova product has been on the court. Comparatively, the next best net ratings on the Knicks this season belong to Mitchell Robinson (9.5 points per 100) and Immanuel Quickley (5.7).
With Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson both playing at an All-Star level — the latter’s exclusion from that honor notwithstanding — the Knicks are peaking just in time for a legitimate playoff push over their final 20 games. They suddenly also are only three games behind Cleveland for the No. 4 seed after the Cavaliers defeated the Raptors on Sunday.
“It’s been steady improvement from the start of the season, so don’t change that approach,” Thibodeau said Saturday. “There’s always things that we can do better and we understand that. So we want to keep growing each day, knowing things will be going up a notch right now.
“We’re headed down the stretch. But don’t get lost in what’s behind us or what’s ahead of us. Just lock into the day, what’s in front of us today. Then we’ll deal with tomorrow, tomorrow. Just keep your focus on giving everything you have to the team and let’s get better on both sides of the ball. So it’s pretty simple. You want to build that routine so you can develop consistency. You want that to be the things that they can count on.”
Today’s back page
🏀 VACCARO: Knicks get perfect chance to show where they stand as Celtics visit Garden
⚾ Rangers’ Jacob deGrom looks to set record straight on Mets exit: ‘Thought I’d be back’
⚾ Mets’ in-house third base competition officially on with Manny Machado off board
🏒 Rangers’ K’Andre Miller ejected for spitting on Kings defenseman, faces possible suspension
No more Manny planning
So much for the MLB free-for-all in free agency — featuring both Shohei Ohtani and Manny Machado — we all were dreaming about for next winter.
Fans and front offices of the Mets and Yankees still can set their sights on Ohtani’s unparalleled two-way greatness being available to the highest bidder following the 2023 season. But Machado, a six-time All-Star, will not be joining the Angels superstar on the open market.
The 30-year-old Machado landed a massive contract extension from the free-spending Padres, locking up last year’s NL MVP runner-up in San Diego for 11 years and $350 million.
I still believe the Yankees made a mistake by not pursuing either Machado or Bryce Harper as marquee free agents at positions of need after the 2018 season.
But the Padres, despite playing in one of the smallest TV markets in MLB, continue to flex their financial might by locking up Machado after obtaining Juan Soto last summer and then signing Xander Boegarts (11 years, $280 million) in the offseason. They also have nine-figure deals on the books with PED-suspended Fernando Tatis Jr (14 years, $340 million) and pitchers Yu Darvish (six years, $108 million) and Joe Musgrove (five years, $100 million).
All three local NHL teams have been at the front of the line for scoring forwards ahead of this year’s trade deadline, and that’s even before the Rangers complete a potential trade for 446-goal scorer Patrick Kane with the Blackhawks.
The Devils landing Timo Meier from the Sharks on Sunday follows the Islanders’ acquisition of center Bo Horvat and the Rangers’ pickup of Vladimir Tarasenko earlier this month.
All three teams currently hold a playoff position in the Eastern Conference; they haven’t reached the postseason in the same year since 2007.
Leave a Reply