Tom Thibodeau of the Knicks talks with Derrick Rose #4 against...

Tom Thibodeau of the Knicks talks with Derrick Rose #4 against the Miami Heat during the second quarter at American Airlines Arena on February 09, 2021 in Miami, Florida.  Credit: Getty Images/Michael Reaves

The Knicks kicked off the second half of their schedule in Milwaukee Thursday night and found themselves in a place that might have been hard to imagine when they began the season.

As they prepared to face Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks they were not just 3 1/2 games behind Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference standings, but in fifth place in the conference and dreaming about a playoff chase. And that set the timeline for a rebuild on its head, meaning that not only do the Knicks start the second half with an arduous schedule, but also a decision to make about whether to go all-in.

Do you believe that this Knicks squad is really a contender for a top-four seed? Or are they a team that will hope to hang on near the end of the playoff field? That might determine what the front office, led by team president Leon Rose, working his first trade deadline, will do in the next two weeks.

"That’s a Leon question," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said this week. "Look, I have a strong bias towards good players. I know they’re looking at all the possibilities. If something makes sense for us we’ll do it. If not I love the team that we have. I love the guys that we have on the team. We’ll just keep working with what we have and Leon and [William Wesley], they’re combing the league, [general manager] Scott Perry. That’s their job."

The team already has made one deal since the season began, trading for Thibodeau favorite Derrick Rose. But that deal that boosted their offense has been negated for now because Rose has been subjected to the NBA health and safety protocols, and he missed his third straight game Thursday with no word when he will be able to rejoin the team. With the Knicks on a four-game road trip to start the second half, the absence of Rose could change the team’s fortunes quickly.

If the first half of the season gave the Knicks hope that they are a contender, the four-game trip through Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Brooklyn and Philadelphia could hint that maybe they aren’t. The Knicks are without Rose and still weeks away from getting Mitchell Robinson back with little time to waste as they mount their chase for a playoff berth.

"The one thing the break does is it gives you a chance to dig into a lot of things," Thibodeau said. "And obviously you feel like in any season there are things you feel you’re doing well and other things you want to improve on. And you know what the challenge is. And sometimes you prioritize fixing one area and you focus in on that. And then you have slippage in another and you have to shift to that.

"We want to be strong on both sides of the ball. We know we have a long way to go. Our guys have put a lot of extra time into the shooting piece, and we’re starting to see the benefits of that. Obviously, the defense has been strong but it still can be a lot better. And we’ll be challenged the second half of the season, as will all the teams. And when you look at what we’re looking at, it’s a condensed schedule. Your practice time, you’re going to have to maximize your time. And you have a plan you’re going to have to stick to the plan. You want to work the plan and keep your focus on improvement and exactly what’s in front of you."