The expectations for the Knicks inside their locker room and outside of it have always varied widely this season, exceeding the limitations critics placed on them and quietly insisting that they believed even if no one else did.
But one thing that has been made clear to anyone who will listen is that they have managed to get to where they are by focusing on one day at a time, one game at a time. But even the orchestrator of that belief, coach Tom Thibodeau, had to admit that the Knicks knew that the two-day span they were beginning Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden had taken on more importance.
The Knicks find themselves in the midst of a race for playoff positioning and with the season winding down they faced the Charlotte Hornets, who have fallen behind them, with the Atlanta Hawks ahead of them arriving Wednesday night. And the Knicks showed that they were up to the first challenge, discarding the Hornets, 109-97.
If it was just 2,000 fans allowed into the Garden, they sounded louder — and maybe that was because as the clock wound down Derrick Rose stood on the court applauding, too, the effort of the team as they won their seventh straight. "That’s what you do," Thibodeau said. "You look and you know where you are in your schedule. You have to prepare for each game the same way. They all count the same, but also understanding what’s at stake in each game.
"Not to get lost in it because the same things go into winning — just know your opponent well, know what we’re trying to take away, know what we’re trying to execute, and just go step by step. But I think you want everyone to be aware of exactly where you are."
The Knicks (32-27) had celebrated Julius Randle’s recognition as the Eastern Conference Player of the Week, but when they took the court they brought to life the words he had spoken hours earlier — that as good as his play has been, winning and a team effort has created the environment for him to thrive in.
With the Hornets (28-29) throwing an assortment of defenders at him, Randle passed the ball off. And in the first half it was Immanuel Quickley who carried the offense, scoring 17 points in the second quarter. Still, the Knicks trailed 66-60 at the half because the usually stingy defense allowed the Hornets to launch three-pointer after three-pointer — 13 of 19 in the half.
But in the third quarter, Randle came out of the locker room and orchestrated the comeback — shrugging off a 1-for-8 first half of shooting by RJ Barrett and feeding him for consecutive threes. Barrett scored 18 of his 24 points in the third quarter.
It was Quickley or Barrett offensively, Taj Gibson providing a defensive lift and just about anyone who Thibodeau put out there outworking and outhustling the Hornets to secure the win. "Everything about our team from top to bottom, it’s just all about winning," said Randle, who finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. "That’s all we care about is winning. And every guy on the roster has that mindset so I take pride being a leader in this team and being unselfish and making plays for other guys. I really take pride in this and I tried to do it every night, make the right play, whatever that is and whatever the team needs for me, and hopefully you know it’s a trickle-down effect."
With a 32-27 record the Knicks sit in fifth place — one-half game behind the Hawks.
We have a big responsibility to ourselves," Nerlens Noel said Tuesday morning. "We have a mentality there is no 7th, 8th seed for us. It’s strictly focused on the four, five, six and making sure we have a solid spot. We worked really hard this season.
"It would be tough to put in that much work in and have a play-in thing. We have to take advantage of the position we’re in now and finish strong through this last stretch of the season so we’re in position to have one of those locked-in spots."
"Obviously when you’re trying to make the playoffs you’d love to stay out of that seven to 10 range and stay out of the play-in," Randle said. "But whatever happens happens. Like I’ve said all year long, we’re just going to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to give ourselves the best chance to win. if we do that I feel like we’ll be in a good spot by the end of the year when everything ends."
If the Knicks try to focus on their own day-to-day routine, it was hard not to watch the standings now as the season winds down.
"Absolutely, you watch," Randle said. "We’re all fighting for something as we’ve been saying. You know, it’s a competition thing. You know we’re watching to see what all is going on, but honestly, we’ve just got to take care of us, from game to game. Like we say, it’s a game-by-game thing. We’re taking care of what we need to, we’re going to put ourselves in a great position at the end of the season."