Knicks Tom Thibodeau questions a call during the first half...

Knicks Tom Thibodeau questions a call during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs in San Antonio, Tuesday, March 2, 2021.  Credit: AP/Eric Gay

The Knicks are better than anyone expected them to be this season. But are they good enough to be competitive against the hottest team in the NBA?

We will find that out Monday night when they travel across the East River to take on the Nets at Barclays Center. The Nets (26-13) have won 12 of their last 13 games despite being without Kevin Durant for 12 of those games.

That’s how loaded the Nets are. They have been rolling over opponents despite playing without Durant, a guy who has won the NBA scoring title four times.

"They have two guys who can really break it down off the dribble," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said of Kyrie Irving and James Harden. "That puts enormous pressure on you . . . You have to make decisions throughout the game who you are going to double-team and when. And any time you do that, you will be vulnerable in another area.

"They have a lot of weapons. They are all tough competitors. It’s a team that’s very deep and very talented."

This will be the Knicks’ first game against the Nets since Harden joined the team. The Nets won their first meeting at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 13, which was the day that news broke that the Nets were creating a Big 3 by adding Harden to Durant and Irving.

The Nets are 15-6 since Harden joined the team and will enter Monday night’s game a game behind the Philadelphia 76ers, who sit at the top of the Eastern Conference.

"I had the opportunity to be around [Harden] with Team USA and he’s unique because of his size, his strength, his power, his passing, his decision-making, his shooting and his ability to go off the dribble," Thibodeau said. "I think the way he is impacting the game, it’s only been impressive to me. He’s so strong and he can finish though people. He plays all the time. He doesn’t take days off. Every night he is out there."

The fact that the Knicks (20-19) are above .500 in March is one of the biggest surprises of the season. They have struggled lately against elite teams, though, losing by 33 points to Milwaukee coming out of the All-Star break.

The Knicks likely will be without their top two point guards again. Elfrid Payton is doubtful with a hamstring injury and Derrick Rose is expected to miss his fifth straight game because of COVID-19 protocols.

That means that Thibodeau will have to choose between Frank Ntilikina, who struggled after getting two quick fouls in the Knicks’ win over Oklahoma City on Saturday, and rookie Immanuel Quickley.

Quickley had 21 points in 33 minutes against the Thunder and is pumped up to play against an elite team like the Nets.

"A rookie playing against Kyrie and Harden? It will be really fun for me," he said after practice on Sunday. "I grew up watching those guys, so it will be fun for me to take that challenge."


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