The night promised to be a test, maybe even a coming-out party for the Knicks. With a national television audience invited to watch, the Knicks were completing a six-game road trip Tuesday at Staples Center against LeBron James and the Lakers.
Except there was no James.
The Lakers star, who has been rehabilitating a sprained right ankle, had been targeting the game against the Knicks to make his return to the lineup in preparation for the postseason. But James opted to spend another day of rest and instead is expected to make his return to action a day later against the lottery-bound Houston Rockets.
While what could have been a compelling show was left with a main character out of the mix, the Knicks shrugged it off and remained focused on their own task at hand.
"We focus on us," Reggie Bullock said following the Knicks’ morning shootaround. "We go into every game not really worried about who's playing for the next opponent or who's out there. We know there’s a lot of great players in this league who can get it going at any time. We go out and focus on whoever they put in those jerseys."
That has been the point of emphasis for Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau this season as the Knicks have made their way through a surprising season — perhaps surprising to everyone outside of the organization. The focus is on the job in front of them — no matter who the opponent is, who is out of action for the opponent or even for the Knicks, and looking no further than the immediate job. That could be practice. It could be a game pitting two storied franchises with all the pieces intact. Or it could be a game like Tuesday night when the biggest attraction opted for street clothes.
It explains how the Knicks carried a 38-30 record into Tuesday’s game — the identical record to the Lakers, the NBA’s defending champions — and it explains how they managed to take a 3-2 record on the road trip into this last stop. The trip at first appeared to be a reality check, but the Knicks managed to survive, still holding onto fourth place in the East as they hit the last stop, needing just any combination of two games — wins by the Knicks, losses by the Celtics — to secure a spot in the top six and avoid the play-in tournament.
"It’s going to mean a lot to us," Bullock said of the possibility of coming back home with a winning record on this trip. "We came on this trip, everyone was saying things about how tough this trip is. But we came in with a lot of focus to get wins. We lost two in a row that we learned and we grew from. We’re just trying to take it game by game and focus on our next opponent. Our next opponent is the Lakers and we have to stay focused on them."
"I think the big thing is everyone has been doubting the team all along," Thibodeau said after Sunday’s win over the Clippers. "And we knew going on the trip we had been playing good basketball, but we were going to have to take it up another level. As the season ends here and people are fighting for different things every night someone's fighting for something, either to make the play-in, to proceed in the playoffs, for the top seed.
"You might be on a road. In the end we all play the same amount of games, the same amount of home games, same amount of road games. So sometimes the schedule is in your favor, sometimes it's not. And whatever you're facing, you have the mental toughness that you can get through it and be successful. Those are habits that you have to build all year long. We can't all sort of just get here and say, ‘Oh we’ve got to be tough.' That doesn't happen like that. It's what you do each and every day from the start of the season, all the way through to the end. So, as we're playing these teams. I think we're finding things out, how important it is. We can't take any days off. We can't take any plays off. So everything matters."
Notes & quotes: The Knicks were without Alec Burks (contused left knee) and Immanuel Quickley (sprained left ankle) again.