The expectations for the Knicks inside their locker room and outside of it have always varied widely this season, exceeding the limitations critics placed on them.
And as that belief has been rewarded the Knicks have tested themselves against some of the NBA’s best teams. But in a two-day span at Madison Square Garden that began Tuesday with a match against the Charlotte Hornets they found themselves able to make an imprint on their own postseason hopes.
Carrying a six-game winning streak into Tuesday’s game the Knicks were matched up with the Hornets, who have fallen to No. 8 in the Eastern Conference as they try to hang on through injury troubles, with the fourth-place Atlanta Hawks arriving Wednesday night. And if a playoff berth seemed unexpected for a franchise that hasn’t sniffed the postseason since 2013 the Knicks again have set their sights higher, chasing a seed that will push them above the play-in tournament that awaits teams finishing seventh to 10th.
"We have a big responsibility to ourselves," Nerlens Noel said Tuesday morning. "We have a mentality there is no seventh, eighth seed for us. It’s strictly focused on the four, five, six and making sure we have a solid spot. We worked really hard this season.
"It would be tough to put in that much work in and have a play-in thing. We have to take advantage of the position we’re in now and finish strong through this last stretch of the season so we’re in position to have one of those locked-in spots."
"Obviously when you’re trying to make the playoffs you’d love to stay out of that seven to 10 range and stay out of the play-in," Julius Randle said. "But whatever happens happens. Like I’ve said all year long, we’re just going to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to give ourselves the best chance to win. If we do that I feel like we’ll be in a good spot by the end of the year when everything ends."
The Knicks carried a 31-27 record into Tuesday’s game, putting them in an unexpected tie with the Boston Celtics for the fifth seed with 14 games remaining. The Hawks held a one-half game edge on those two while Miami was one game behind and the Hornets two back. Charlotte learned this week that rookie point guard LaMelo Ball could return before season’s end from a fractured wrist. He underwent surgery less than one month ago.
Even as the Knicks continue to insist they are focusing on their own day-to-day routine, it was hard not to watch the standings now as the season winds down.
"Absolutely, you watch," Randle said. "We’re all fighting for something as we’ve been saying. You know, it’s a competition thing. You know we’re watching to see what all is going on, but honestly we’ve just got to take care of us, from game to game. Like we say, it’s a game-by-game thing. We’re taking care of what we need to, we’re going to put ourselves in a great position at the end of the season."
The Knicks have managed to avoid many of the pitfalls that have affected other teams, never having to shut down their work or schedule because of a COVID outbreak even if they have lost two players — Derrick Rose for three weeks at the start of the second half of the season and Alec Burks, who is currently out. Mitchell Robinson was lost to a fractured hand and then shortly after returning suffered a fractured bone in his foot, but Noel and Taj Gibson have made up for his absence.
"The pieces are definitely coming together," Noel said. "We’ve been working hard and putting in the work all year. At some point, when we lost those close games as we did, we’re still in good shape.
"We’ve turned the corner where we’re closing these games and knowing the type of energy and effort and focus and attention to detail we need to close these fourth-quarter games . . . We understand how much we have to tighten up those aspects because the playoffs, it’s going to get more intensified and more physical."