Knicks forward Julius Randle shoots against the Rockets in Houston...

Knicks forward Julius Randle shoots against the Rockets in Houston on May 2, 2021.  Credit: AP/Troy Taormina

The Knicks have stressed the need to take their season one step at a time. On Sunday, they took the first step in what could be the most important stretch of the season without stumbling. And they did it well enough that even Tom Thibodeau could not resist emptying his bench early.

With the first stop on a six-game road trip serving as the lone meeting with a struggling opponent, the Knicks built a 35-point lead and beat the Houston Rockets, 122-97.

Julius Randle led the Knicks with 31 points in 30:19 through three quarters before getting a well-deserved rest. Derrick Rose scored 24 points off the bench, RJ Barrett had 21, and with just under five minutes left, the last starter was pulled.

The Knicks (36-28) already had clinched a spot in at least the NBA’s play-in tournament during their three-day break, but they weren’t leaving anything to chance with a game that figures to be the easiest step on the trail to the finish line this season. They clinched at least a .500 record for the first time since the 2012-13 season.

"It’s step by step," Thibodeau said before the game. "Obviously, you have to put as many things in play as possible. The first thing you have to do is qualify. You’re striving to be the highest seed possible. As things fall into place, don’t get lost in what we’re trying to accomplish. Focus in on Houston. You have go get in first and you go day-by-day."

"We’re fighting for something," Rose said. "We know that down the stretch we want to be playing our best basketball and giving our best effort and playing with urgency.

We believe in one another. We know that we have a mission and one common goal, so it’s about picking another person up, coming together as a team, and I love it because it reminds me a little bit like the old school."

The worst thing that can happen to the Knicks right now is finding trouble, and they did in the third quarter. With the Knicks up 12, Nerlens Noel suffered a sprained left ankle when he got tangled up with Kelly Olynyk, who had fallen back while trying to take a charge from Barrett. Noel stayed down for a few moments and then walked straight back to the locker room under his own power before being ruled out for the remainder of the game.

"I haven’t had a chance to talk to the trainers yet," Thibodeau said, "so we’ll see what it looks like and go from there."

With a back-to-back set concluding Monday in Memphis, the Knicks could find themselves shorthanded in the middle. Mitchell Robinson already is out of action and now Noel could be sidelined, which would leave the Knicks with 35-year-old Taj Gibson, who was forced into nearly 32 minutes of action Sunday. They also have recently signed Norvel Pelle.

With 11 wins in their last 12 games, the Knicks have ascended to fourth place in the Eastern Conference race. They are 1 1⁄2 games ahead of the Hawks and Heat and 2 1⁄2 ahead of the seventh-place Celtics.

Few outside of their own locker room would have expected that, but the path to hold on to that spot and the home-court advantage it would bring — or even to hold on to a top six spot and avoid the play-in tournament — won’t be easy.

"I think that’s the important thing when you start the season," Thibodeau said. "You talk about all the things that can happen and the type of focus you want to maintain throughout. So you always begin with the end in mind. And you think about building the right habits so you don’t get distracted. It’s very easy in this league to get lost. That’s a big part of winning — your preparation to play each game. They all count the same."

While that may be true, the opposition certainly will get tougher after this one. The Rockets are an NBA-worst 16-49. The Knicks now will play the Grizzlies (32-31), Nuggets (43-21), Suns (46-18), Clippers (43-22) and Lakers (36-28).

"[We] try to approach it the same way we’ve been approaching the whole season, which is just taking everything one day at a time, one game at a time, trying to get better when we’re not on the floor and then when we’re on the floor, playing together," Immanuel Quickley said. "The same things that we’ve been doing all season. We don’t want to change anything now. We just want to continue to sharpen everything that we do."