The Knicks limped into the last stop on the schedule before the All-Star break Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, still shorthanded and facing the reality that this is no midseason break.
When the Knicks return from the break and resume the schedule on Feb. 25 there will be only 23 games left to make up for the flaws and faults of the season that has gone sideways.
RJ Barrett, sidelined for a fourth straight game Wednesday, is expected back. Derrick Rose could be returning soon. But it is wishful thinking for the Knicks to think that the break will provide them and coach Tom Thibodeau with a way back to the levels the team reached last season, when they ascended to the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.
"Yeah, just, you hit this stretch and it’s good to get the break," Thibodeau said before the Knicks took on the Nets with a national audience tuned in. "Get recharged, refreshed and then lock into what’s left after that.
"It gives us a chance to take a step back, look at everything, focus in on what we have to do. Just lock into each and every day, work at getting better. There’s a lot of areas that we need to improve upon."
That last line was as accurate and honest as anything that the coach could say at this point. His own reputation has taken a hit after earning his second coach of the year award last season, struggling to a 25-33 record entering Wednesday. He has drawn the ire of a fan base that has turned on him quickly for his lineups and style, forgetting the strides the team made under his leadership last season.
And he’s not alone. Julius Randle went from a second-team All-NBA performance last season and the NBA’s Most Improved Player to a shadow of that player — and one that has also drawn the criticism from the hometown fans, which created an ugly incident this season and a long stretch in which he seemed as if he’d rather be anywhere else.
Randle has upped his play of late, but still the Knicks entered the night with 12 losses in their last 15 games. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, it’s getting late early for the Knicks. While there normally would be nearly 50% of the season left, the Knicks have little time to right the ship.
"I don’t know exactly how or why it’s been kicked down the road like this, but whatever it is we’ve got to deal with it," Thibodeau said. "So it’s a break, it’s a chance to get away and recharge and then lock into that final 20. Usually 40 to 60 is a tough stretch and then the final 20 you’re locked in because you’re fighting for something."
Derrick Rose provided a boost when he arrived in a trade last season, the franchise turning almost immediately with his arrival. He has been sidelined since Dec. 16, undergoing surgery on his right ankle. He steadied the second unit last season and it’s been a disaster without him. So perhaps that is the best chance the Knicks have to get on track, inserting him back in the lineup.
"Well it’s hard to say," Thibodeau said. "When you look at Derrick when he’s on the floor and you look at the plus-minus of the players, he impacts it in a very positive way. And he’s always been that way. Because he gives you the transition game, he gives you the pick-and-roll game, he can play on the ball, he can play off the ball, so it adds a lot to our team."