Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts against the Houston Rockets...

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts against the Houston Rockets in the second half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden on Monday, March 27, 2023. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Since the start of training camp there is a mantra that Tom Thibodeau preaches to the Knicks, one that they repeat as if his voice has been placed inside their bodies: Focus on the task at hand, never look ahead. And now, the Knicks have come to a day when that task might be as important as any day they have faced.

The Knicks host the Miami Heat Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, one week after the Heat beat them in a game that resembled the sort of street fight the two franchises engaged in decades ago.

“Yeah, that’s obvious,” RJ Barrett said of the importance of this game. “If we get this one it’ll put us even in a better position, especially with just losing to them. It’s definitely a focus.”

This game gives the Knicks a chance to essentially secure the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference if they can avenge that loss. The Knicks' win over Houston Monday gave them a 2 1/2-game lead over Miami and the Nets, and while Miami was playing in Toronto Tuesday, this game could give the Knicks at least a three-game margin with five games remaining. A win would also give the Knicks a 3-1 edge in the season series.

The win over Houston brought the Knicks back from what felt like late-season panic. It ended a three-game losing streak that also had them seeming a little dysfunctional with Jalen Brunson suffering a hand injury and Julius Randle losing his cool with technical fouls in three straight games.

“It’ll definitely have that playoff-type atmosphere for sure,” Immanuel Quickley said. “Miami is a very good team. I think we’re ready for that challenge, though. Playing a team your fourth time is basically almost like a playoff series. You know what the other team is going to run. Basically just coming out, got to be the hungrier team. So, we know Miami is a great team. We think we’re a really good team, as well. So, we’ll be ready for that challenge.”

The most important step would be getting Brunson back. He was injured last week in Miami, a game that left a few of the Knicks battered. He sat out the next two games with what the team has called a sprained right hand. Thibodeau said that Brunson went through a full practice Sunday and the morning shootaround Monday but was held out against the Rockets in a precautionary move. But he is expected to play Wednesday with his hand protected by some sort of splint or brace.

“Yeah, that’s the medical [staff],” Thibodeau said. “They weigh in, Jalen weighs in and whatever they decide, that’s it. We’re not going to put him in harm’s way, and if he goes he goes.

"He went through a good part of the shootaround today, but we just felt the smart thing was [waiting] one more game. So that’s where we are.”

Where they are is in control of their own destiny, able to distance themselves from Miami with a win and feeling healthy and good about themselves.

“You guys know what I always say about winning,” Thibodeau said. “Winning is always way more fun than fun is fun. It’s the truth. Sometimes you look at where we are, it’s been a challenging month, we’ve had guys out but I like the way we’re fighting. And we fell short in the game in Miami. The Orlando game was a hard-fought game. You just have to do enough things to win. One game has really nothing to do with the next. The challenge for us will be to get ready for Miami. All of our games with them have been hard-fought. We know what it’s going to look like and we’ve got to be ready for that challenge.”

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