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Tough defense proving a winner for Knicks

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts during the

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts during the first half of an NBA game against the Magic Monday at Madison Square Garden. Credit: AP/Kathy Willens

Surprise, surprise. As the Knicks head on their longest road trip of the truncated season, they are in a much better position than anyone thought they would be.

The Knicks (7-8) are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference as they open up play Thursday night at Golden State before going on to Sacramento, Portland and Utah. And a big reason for their early success is the almost retro-Nineties emphasis on defense.

Heading into Wednesday night, the Knicks were allowing the fewest points per game in the NBA, with opponents scoring an average of 102.7 points. Knicks opponents were also making a league-low 37.5% of their shots and a league-low 31.2% of their three-pointers.

Those stats were helped by back-to-back wins against the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic on Sunday and Monday. The Knicks destroyed the Celtics, 105-75, holding them to 29.8% from the field and 15.2% deep. They then went on to defeat the Magic, 91-84, limiting them to 33.7% overall.

The Knicks’ defense could be severely challenged on this trip as the Kings, Jazz and Blazers are all in the top 10 in offensive efficiency.

"The thing is, you know there is work to be done on both sides of the ball," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said after the team practiced in California on Wednesday. "Obviously, you want to be in the top 10 in offense and defense and strive to be in the top five.

"If you are in the top five, you are a championship caliber team. So that’s something you are always working toward. It’s a long way to go, but if we can rely on our defense and rebounding and keep our turnovers low, I know that puts you in position to win regardless of how well you shoot the ball on any particular night."

And there have been plenty of nights where the Knicks don’t shoot the ball well. Fifteen games in, the Knicks are averaging just 100.6 points per game. Only the Cavaliers, who entered Wednesday averaging 99.5, were worse. The Knicks are making 44.5% of their shots from the field, ranking them 22nd in the league, and 34.4% from downtown, which is 23rd.

Thibodeau said he doesn’t want to get too wrapped up in statistics, because in the end there is only one that matters.

"I know we just have to keep doing what we’re doing. The most important statistic is the winning and we still have a long way to go," he said.

"Sometimes people get locked in to numbers. And you can make numbers say a lot of things. But the reality is the most important number is the winning part of it. Did you score more than our opponent did? That’s what matters. So you want to give yourself the best chance to win, you want to play to your strengths, you want to cover up your weaknesses, and have everybody understand that. But what goes into winning is commitment, sacrifice, togetherness, intelligence and you need everyone to contribute in that way."

Notes & quotes: Alec Burks is listed as probable to return from an ankle injury Thursday night against the Warriors. Burks has been sidelined since Dec. 27. Bucks was averaging 31.5 minutes before sustaining the injury in the third game of the season. Burks, who played for Golden State last season, was the Knicks’ first free-agent signing. When asked Wednesday if he was excited to return against his former team, Burks said, "I’m just glad to be playing."

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