GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- A quarter century ago, Bernard King scored 60 points on Christmas Day in a game witnessed by a few at the Garden – the announced crowd was 10,581 -- and seen only by a limited local cable television audience -- before everyone had cable -- on MSG Network. This year, when the Knicks play their first Christmas Day game since 2001, it will be a packed house and broadcast not just on MSG, but also nationally on ESPN as part of the NBA’s five-game schedule.
And perhaps the NBA chose the Knicks mostly for the stage they provide at the Garden for one of the league’s biggest stars, Dwyane Wade, whose Heat are the other team on the ticket on a holiday schedule of games that include most of the biggest stars and best teams in the NBA. After the Knicks’ noon game, the Celtics (Kevin Garnett) and Magic (Dwight Howard) play at 2 p.m. and the Lakers (Kobe Bryant) and Cavaliers (LeBron James) follow at 5 p.m., both on ABC.
That’s some impressive company. But the Knicks (11-17) know who they are.
“We’re by no means an elite team in this league right now,” David Lee said. “We’ve still got a lot to prove and a lot to get better at right now. At this point, I’m not too concerned, to be honest with you, about the whole national television thing. Right now, I’d probably rather the game was just on MSG and we could hopefully sneak out another win. At this point, it’s all about how we’re playing and our team is kind of finding its identity a little bit.”
Mike D’Antoni’s Knicks were blown out by the Heat in the season opener on Oct. 29 in Miami, but that – and the 1-9 start that it began – are far enough behind them now that D’Antoni said he’d “be surprised” if his team fell behind by 30 points again this time against the Heat (14-12).
“I think now we can play with anybody at any time,” D’Antoni added of a team that is riding the optimism of three straight wins and eight in the last 11.
“Before I probably wouldn’t be looking forward to this, but I’m looking forward to it to see how we compete and see where we are,” D’Antoni said. “I think every day is a test to see where we stack up. It’s fun to coach this group because they take to coaching well. It just seems we’re getting better and more of a cohesive unit.”
The game is an opportunity for the rebuilding franchise to gain some much-needed national respect and prove the recent run of success to be more of a trend than a fluke. A win would move the Knicks over the Bobcats for the eighth spot in the East.
A win would actually move the Knicks within three of Miami for the fifth seed in the East, which is a point D’Antoni will share with his team before the game.
“They know how important these games are,” he said earlier this week. “Anybody close to us is worth two games, one they lose and one you win.”
With an 8-3 record in December so far, the Knicks have already clinched the first winning month since January last season. Two wins out of the final four will achieve the first 10-win month since Jan. 2003.
“We could make it a great month and then we’ve got to make January a great month,” D’Antoni said, “because November sucked.”
Notes & Quotes: Jonathan Bender, who pulled out off Tuesday’s win over the Bulls with a sore hip, did not practice on Thursday and is listed as “questionable” for the game. D’Antoni said Bender and the training staff want to be “extra cautious” with any leg-related issues he has to protect his knees . . . Nate Robinson stopped for a brief chat with Donnie Walsh after practice. The two said it was merely to exchange holiday wishes and said there was nothing new to report about the situation involving the 5-9 guard, whose agent last week requested a trade.