The potential game-tying shot from Julius Randle had barely finished bouncing off the rim Monday night, putting an end to another hard-fought and disappointing loss when the Knicks had to turn their attention to the next task.
The loss to the Nets was another chance to test themselves against one of the best teams in the NBA, and the Knicks found themselves battling but just not able to get the win. The Knicks are now 2-7 in games decided by three points or fewer, and their only win over a team with a winning record in the last two months came against a severely shorthanded Milwaukee squad missing four starters and seven of their top players.
So the next test will come quickly with the Knicks heading to Boston to face the Celtics Wednesday night, a team neck-and-neck with them in the playoff race. Almost every night they take the court the rest of the way presents a challenge of this sort — Monday’s game started a string of 22 games to the finish line in which 21 are against teams currently in the playoff picture.
For the Knicks, it is a new experience as a franchise, which has been out of the race for the last six seasons, and for the players, too. Randle, the team’s lone All-Star, has never been in a playoff game in his seven seasons. RJ Barrett, his sidekick, endured a 21-45 season as a rookie. Point guard Elfrid Payton has endured six seasons without a playoff appearance. Reggie Bullock has been in four playoff games, the last one coming five years ago.
"It’s extremely fun," Randle said. "Competitive. You get up for these games being able to come every night and play for something. So it’s great. And it definitely brings a competitive edge [out] of you even more. It’s exciting. We just have to give ourselves a chance and come out with wins, honestly."
In this season, with COVID-19 having set back some teams and injuries being a factor in the condensed schedule, the Knicks have managed to avoid most of the pitfalls. They lost only one player for a lengthy health and safety protocol related absence and are dealing with the loss of Mitchell Robinson to a fractured right foot. But Randle has missed just one game and Barrett has played in all 51.
The Knicks caught the Nets on the second night of a back-to-back set and will do the same with the Celtics, who face Philadelphia on Tuesday night. The Knicks (25-26) are in seventh place, tied with Boston and 2 games out of fourth place. The tests continue and even if they haven’t managed to do more than win the games they should win, they insist they are enjoying the challenge.
"It’s been great," Barrett said. "Just being able to go out and compete with the best teams in the league and try to win games. It’s been a lot of fun and a lot of learning experiences. I look forward to many more."