Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau gestures in the second half...

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau gestures in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The Knicks have been well-drilled by Tom Thibodeau to avoid big picture speculation, answering questions about the final 21-game stretch of the season by pointing to the next day’s assignment is the farthest into the future they will allow their attention to go.

But as they took the floor at Madison Square Garden Saturday night it was hard to ignore the reality even if they wouldn’t go there. The Knicks brought a four-game winning streak and a 34-27 record into the night — good enough for sixth place in the Eastern Conference and closing fast on the Nets in fifth.

It wasn’t quite reaching the heights of legendary teams in franchise history like the 1973 championship team — the last championship in franchise history — that was honored at halftime Saturday night. But for the long-struggling franchise, it’s a start. Yet for Thibodeau, there is the insistence that nothing has changed.

“No, we don’t change,” Thibodeau said. “We lay out the plan in the beginning of the year and we stick to it. So there’s going to be different ups and downs. You’ve got to navigate the good, navigate the bad. We have to understand — stay focused, stay locked in to exactly what’s in front of you. The All-Star break does give you a chance to take a snapshot of where you are. But nothing changes in terms of attitude, approach and what you have to do and what goes into winning.”

Some has changed though. The pressure on Thibodeau has disappeared as the team has come together since Dec. 3 when they were 10-13 and licking their wounds from the worst loss of the season — a collapse at home against the Dallas Mavericks. But since then they have gone 24-14 to ascend in the standings.

And the rotation has changed and the roster with it, moving Cam Reddish out and silencing the debate about whether he should play or continue to sit — his removal from the rotation came after that Dallas loss. Now Josh Hart has arrived as a steady force — even closing games in place of RJ Barrett since he came in the Reddish trade. Hart has provided another defensive, hustling force to the team — although Thibodeau insisted it remains that he will go down the stretch with whoever is providing what the team needs.

“Just lock in,” Thibodeau said. “It’s been steady improvement from the start of the season, so don’t change that approach. There’s always things that we can do better and understand that. So we want to keep growing each day, knowing things will be going up a notch right now. We’re headed down the stretch. But don’t get lost in what’s behind us or what’s ahead of us. Just lock into the day, what’s in front of us today. Then we’ll deal with tomorrow tomorrow. Just keep your focus on giving everything you have to the team and let’s get better on both sides of the ball. So it’s pretty simple. And you want to build that routine so you can develop consistency. You want that to be the things that they can count on.”

Notes & quotes: A story surfaced on Bleacher Report this week that the Phoenix Suns were monitoring whether Derrick Rose would get a buyout from the Knicks. But Rose, asked about it before Saturday’s game, said he had not had any discussions of a buyout. “No, I haven’t talked to anybody about that. I haven’t talked to anyone. I haven’t even thought about it. I’m locked in to my thing right now. It’s kind of hard to think about something that I’ve never pursued and never talked about with them . . . I’ve just been locked in, doing my recovery. Talk to Thibs about the team, talk to Leon [Rose] about the team, but other than that, I haven’t talked to them about [a buyout].” Rose said that with his son playing for the Gauchos in New York it’s not just his playing time that is a consideration. But, “He loves it over here. I’d probably have to talk it over with him, even before Thibs.”


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