MEMPHIS, Tenn. — After finishing off a wire-to-wire 107-77 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday night for their third straight win, the Knicks sounded a lot like they did as they were spiraling through a seven-game losing streak that preceded this rise.
Tom Thibodeau still was preaching a day-by-day approach. Julius Randle still was pointing out that his glass is half-full. And RJ Barrett was recalling a bad loss as he looked ahead to the next opponent.
And maybe that is the correct approach, the way the Knicks shed the rumors and squabbles about what changes might come and suddenly reinserted themselves back into the playoff — or at least play-in — talk in the Eastern Conference.
"I mentioned this to you guys," Thibodeau said. "I tell them that when we came back from the break, the Miami game, the two Philly games, the Phoenix game. Each game I thought we played really well.
"We didn’t have a whole lot to show for it, but I thought we were playing good basketball. Now we’re starting to scratch out the wins. We’ve just got to keep going, take it day by day, concentrate on improvement, keep getting better. We’ve been emphasizing all year how important it is to be mentally tough when you’re facing adversity. That’s what we’re doing."
With the teams immediately above them struggling, the 12th-place Knicks (28-38) have pulled within 3 1/2 games of the Eastern Conference's final play-in spot with 16 games to play. The Hornets and Hawks are in a virtual tie for the ninth and 10th spots, and the Knicks have one game against Atlanta and two against Charlotte remaining on their schedule.
It’s certainly no easy task. The 11th-place Wizards are two games ahead of the Knicks, so they have to leapfrog them, too. And before they can think about returning home and facing a softer schedule, they have two more stops on this seven-game road trip against the Grizzlies (45-22) on Friday night and the Nets on Sunday afternoon.
"Glass half-full," Randle said. "That’s all I got for you."
"I told you," Barrett said. "We’re just going to fight and try to win every game. The hardest-playing team is going to win most nights.
"Closing the games out. That’s all we’re doing different. The past couple of games before that, we would have a lead and lose it. The difference is now is finishing the games off."
There is little doubt that Barrett picked out the common denominator. The Knicks squandered leads repeatedly in the seven-game losing streak, some of them double-digit leads — including a 28-point advantage over the Nets. But after the toughest defeat of all of them, a one-point loss in Phoenix on a banked three-pointer at the buzzer, the Knicks have recovered to respond when the opposition makes a run.
In Dallas on Wednesday, their 28-point lead was down to 14 In the third quarter, and with the American Airlines Center going wild, the Knicks managed to stand strong, lifting the advantage to 32 points.
They have outscored the Clippers, Kings and Mavericks by 69 points in their three straight victories. Against Sacramento, they turned a 20-point deficit into a 23-point lead with an 86-43 run in 22:51.
Thibodeau has stressed through the struggles that a game or a season can turn at any moment. For the Knicks, there is hope that in this streak and in their suddenly improved play, the change has come for them.
"Hope so," Barrett said. "We have to take it one day at a time, keep improving, keep getting better."