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."