The Knicks found themselves facing their cross-river rivals Monday night, a test with the stakes and challenges raised by the fact that the Nets have emerged as the Eastern Conference front-runners.
But the standings, the possibility of a first-round playoff matchup or even bragging rights when they can sit and dine together were not enough to break the Knicks from their focus on the task in front of them.
"Going into the season we wanted to establish a style of play, build a foundation, build the right habits and improve daily," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. "So that’s what we work towards. And we feel like if we take care of those things the results will take care of themselves."
But that remains to be seen just how much the Knicks are moving forward and getting ready for a late-season run. In a stretch of two months entering Monday night’s game the Knicks had beaten only one team with a .500 record, and that came against the Milwaukee Bucks when the Bucks were without four starters and seven of their top players.
While the 44-point win in Detroit Saturday eased the tension after a three-game losing streak had dropped the Knicks below .500 and had them speaking boldly about their 15-man strong unit taking on the Nets' Big 3 of James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant (Durant sat out Monday’s game), it did little to prove that they are up to the task.
There are likely no 44-point wins on the horizon with 21 of the final 22 games against teams currently holding playoff spots — including following up the game in Brooklyn with a meeting with the Celtics in Boston Wednesday.
"Got to find a way to win games," RJ Barrett said. "You know, it’s the NBA. Everybody is good, honestly. So just finding a way to scratch out these games, it’s going to be a dogfight and honestly, those are our kind of games."
The Knicks took the Nets to the wire last month in Brooklyn — which ended with Julius Randle having to be stopped from chasing after referee Scott Foster as a frustrating finish bubbled over. Randle spoke earlier this week about the Nets' Big 3 and the confidence he had in "the big 15" the Knicks had. And while the Nets' 15-man roster is deep and stocked with All-Star talent, there is some truth to his assertion.
The Knicks have managed to avoid much of the COVID-19 interruptions that other teams have been shaken with, losing just one key piece for a long stretch when Derrick Rose was sidelined. And they’ve been able to practice and work together every day.
"I think there’s pride in every game," Thibodeau said. "You go into the game, you know they’re talented, we have to be ready to play for 48 minutes. It’s hard to get wins on the road, you can’t let you’re guard down. You’ve got to be ready."
Notes & quotes: The Knicks filled their final roster spot Monday, signing 6-9 center John Henson to a 10-day contract. The 30-year-old Henson had not played this season and played for Cleveland and Detroit last season after spending his first seven seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks. "He’s just insurance," Thibodeau said. "He’s been around. Has shown the ability to protect the rim. So we had an ability to sign him. Bottom line is Nerlens [Noel] and Taj [Gibson] have played really well. So both guys are insurance for us. We like their size, we like their shot-blocking ability. We think it’s critical and it gives us an opportunity to get a look at them."