After the Knicks dropped their second straight on a crucial six-game road trip, eyes turned toward the standings, where the Hawks sit just a half game back of New York for a pivotal fourth seed and home court advantage in the in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
For the Knicks, the final two games of their gruelling road trip don’t get any easier. After falling to the Nuggets and Suns, Tom Thibodeau’s group now heads further west to take on the Clippers on Sunday afternoon before wrapping up with the Lakers on Tuesday night.
With just one game separating the Knicks from the Heat in sixth place, the final spot to avoid the new play-in tournament, these final five games of the season will be crucial for New York, beginning with these final two games out west.
“I’m not worried about both of them,” Thibodeau said after Friday night’s loss. “Just worried about the next one.”
The Clippers will present another massive obstacle for the Knicks on Sunday, as Kawhi Leonard and company are third in the West with a 45-22 record having won two in a row. They’re currently one game up on the Nuggets, who dismantled New York on Wednesday night. The Lakers have fallen further and further down the standings in the West, now in a similar spot as the Knicks as they try to avoid the play-in tournament. Recent reports indicate that LeBron James, who is sidelined again after dealing with soreness in the ankle he sprained earlier this season, could return for that Tuesday game against the Knicks. But even if James can’t go, Anthony Davis would still present issues for New York’s defense, which was rolled over by Denver big man Nikola Jokic on Wednesday.
“I like these games for our team,” Thibodeau said. “I think it shows us where we are and the things we have to work on, and that old saying, ‘iron sharpens iron.’ Hopefully we can improve and it will help us down the road.”
The Knicks looked to be in position to grab a huge win on the road on Friday before a disastrous final minute of the third quarter turned a seven-point lead into a one-point deficit, and the game only continued to slip away in the fourth. After taking the first two games of this pivotal road trip, New York will now have to bring its best and fight off jet lag if it wants to continue to control its own destiny for the fourth seed, or at the very least, avoid the play-in.
“These games, they’re testaments,” Taj Gibson said. “Every game is a testament. You can’t just sneak into the playoffs. We’re playing some really good teams right now and it’s only going to make us better, but we just need to get back to the drawing board and focus on what we need to improve.”
Very few expected the Knicks to be in this spot at this point in the season. The team has already clinched its first winning season in eight years and has its sights set on its first playoff berth since that last winning campaign. But whatever the expectations were to start, they have changed since then, and the team expects to correct course on its continued journey out west and maintain its hold on home court for what would be a highly anticipated playoff return.
But it’s not going to be easy.
“I love our group,” Gibson said. “I love how resilient we are. This is only going to make us better.”
Follow Ryan Chichester on Twitter: @ryanchichester1