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Knicks have crucial stretch of games ahead

The Knicks' Danilo Gallinari reacts after an emphatic

The Knicks' Danilo Gallinari reacts after an emphatic dunk over Indiana's Roy Hibbert in the second quarter. The Knicks won, 132-89. (January 3, 2010) Credit: AP

GREENBURGH, N.Y. - Can a game in early January between two teams with sub-.500 records be considered a showdown? A pitched battle for a playoff spot?

In the NBA's Eastern Conference, it can be.

The Knicks will host the Larry Brown-led Charlotte Bobcats Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. Going into Wednesday, Charlotte (15-18) held the seventh spot in the conference. The Knicks (14-20) were 10th, one game behind eighth-place Milwaukee.

"These should be treated kind of like playoff games in the sense that it's . . . a two-game swing," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "There's a lot of games we'll have this month. We've got Charlotte, we've got Detroit a couple times, we've got Chicago . . . they're not crucial, crucial, but they're very important games."

The Knicks, who are owned by Cablevision, which also owns Newsday, have won three of their last four and six of nine; the Bobcats have won three in a row, including road victories at Miami and Cleveland on consecutive nights. They have beaten the Knicks twice in three meetings. "They play as hard as anybody in the league, they're a team that's as good defensively as anybody in the league," David Lee said. "We're going to have to come out and do a good job on Gerald Wallace and Steven Jackson. It starts with those guys.

"It's an important game because it's a team that's close to us in the standings. They're playing great ball right now. I think we're playing great ball. We need to go out there and take care of our home court."

The Knicks had done that, winning six in a row at the Garden, before losing back-to-back games to Miami and San Antonio during Christmas week. Other than a stunning loss to the Nets on Dec. 30, the Knicks have been solid since. They blew out the Pacers in their last game on Sunday, 132-89. "We're starting to carry ourselves with a little swagger," Al Harrington said.

Said D'Antoni: "I definitely think that a little success, a little bit, has really helped us. They feel good as a group.

"I don't think we get shook. We can get down and know we can come back. They have more confidence as a group that they can battle. Some nights we'll be off, some nights we'll play bad, some nights we'll stink it up. But I don't think there's any shoulders dropping, heads down. If that happens, they come back, work a little bit harder and get ready for the next game."

Notes & quotes: The contracts of Jonathan Bender and Marcus Landry were guaranteed for the rest of the season . . . Danilo Gallinari sat out practice with a sore right shoulder but is expected to play Thursday night . . . D'Antoni on whether he has a communication gap with players who are disgruntled over playing time: "I think they seem to be communicating pretty well."

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