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Knicks face test against NBA's top three teams

GREENBURGH, N.Y. - There was a time, not all that long ago, when most Knicks would approach a week like this with a sense of dread, if not doom.

But with the team playing its best basketball of the season, everyone is fired up to see how the Knicks will tackle the most difficult three-game stretch on their schedule. The test begins tonight when the Knicks host the Lakers (37-9) and continues with games at the Garden against the Cavaliers (37-9) on Wednesday and the Celtics (40-9) on Friday.

"We're playing great basketball," Tim Thomas said after practice yesterday. "This should be a major, major stepping-stone to see what we've got. It's going to be an exciting time, these next three games."

With their 122-113 road win over the Pacers on Saturday, the Knicks have won eight of their last 11 games, including five in a row at the Garden. They've shown they can play with the league's better teams, posting wins over Boston, New Orleans, Houston (albeit without Yao Ming) and Atlanta.

The Knicks lost to the Lakers, 116-114, in Los Angeles in December. They also are catching the Lakers at an opportune moment; center Andrew Bynum is out with a knee injury.

Still, dealing with Kobe Bryant& Co. is always a stiff challenge. "You have to know that Kobe is going to get his points, and you're not going to stop him unless he has an off game," said Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, who saw the Lakers much more frequently when he was the coach of the Suns. "He's one of the two or three best players in the game in our lifetime. He's fun to watch."

With their recent success, D'Antoni has noticed a change in attitude in his team. It's clear that the Knicks believe they have a realistic chance of winning every time they walk on the floor. And it's clear that they are beginning to believe that they have a realistic chance of making it to the playoffs.

The Knicks (21-25) are a half-game behind Milwaukee ( 24-27) for the No. 8 spot and two games behind Philadelphia (23-23) for the No. 7 spot in the Eastern Conference.

Said D'Antoni: "We have a goal of making it to the playoffs and we're sticking to that goal. It's not going to be easy, but the guys are playing well right now. These are three good teams coming in here and we're going to see what we can do. When we play well, I think we can play with anybody. Especially at home."

Tonight

Lakers at Knicks

7:30 p.m.

TV: MSG

Radio: WEPN (1050)

Garden gauntlet

The Knicks' three opponents this week at home are the only three teams in the NBA with fewer than double-digit defeats:

Date Opponent Rec (Pct.)

Tonight LA Lakers 37-9 (. 804)

Wednesday

Cleveland 37-9 (. 804)

Friday Boston 40-9 (. 816)

Totals 114-27

(. 809)

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