LOS ANGELES — Now that Tim Hardaway Jr. is healthy and playing again, he wants to help the Knicks reach the playoffs. That’s his singular goal, and he won’t be happy if they fall short.
“We’re trying to make the playoffs, point blank,” he said after practice Saturday at UCLA. “Myself being in the playoffs the past two seasons, I wouldn’t want anything less. Anything less than that to me isn’t a good season. I want to go out there and do whatever I can on my behalf and my part to help the team win.”
Jeff Hornacek also wants the Knicks to make the playoffs, but he is trying to temper expectations. He continues to say this season is about building, growing and developing.
Hornacek said the players have the higher expectations now. Hardaway, who played for Atlanta the previous two seasons, echoed that Saturday.
“I want to make the playoffs,” he said. “I know my teammates want to make the playoffs. We are developing as a ballclub. We are young. At the same time, we feel even though we’re a young group of guys, we still have that heart and that passion to go out there and win ballgames and string some ballgames together to get back in that playoff position. We’re on the outside looking in. Hopefully we’ll get closer going into the All-Star break.”
Entering Saturday, the Knicks (21-25) were 2½ games out of the Eastern Conference’s last playoff spot. They feel confident that they can make up that ground and even go on a run because Hardaway is back, and they’re off to a decent start in what many considered their toughest stretch of the season. They are 2-1 on a seven-game road trip that continues Sunday afternoon against the Lakers.
“I feel like with our group, we have that fire and that desire and in our heart [the goal] is to make the playoffs one hundred percent,” Hardaway said. “If we don’t make the playoffs, we’re going to go home in April upset.”
But the Knicks still have some glaring holes and issues. Their defense takes too many possessions off. They have difficulty closing out games, and sometimes starting games. The point guard position continues to be unsettled and a weakness. And their best player, Kristaps Porzingis, has been erratic lately.
But Hardaway has shown the Knicks what they were missing when he was sidelined for six weeks with a stress injury in his lower left leg. In four games since returning, he has shot 52.6 percent (30-for-57) from the field and is averaging 22 points. He scored 31 points in a 117-115 win over the Jazz on Friday.
“That’s a credit to him,” Hornacek said. “A lot of times guys struggle when they first come back from the summer or off an injury because they’re not in great shape, and that affects your jumping, how you shoot the ball. Tim worked extremely hard with the conditioning part of it. When he couldn’t do it on the court, he was doing it in the weight room and stuff. He was ready, so that’s why he got back quickly.”
The Knicks went 8-12 without Hardaway, and Hornacek won’t let himself think about where they would be if he had stayed healthy. The organization knows it’s important for this young team to play meaningful games late in the season and for Porzingis to be in a playoff race. But Hornacek stressed that they have to stay focused on improving each game. “You’re coaching to win, but you’re always looking at and we’re always emphasizing certain things like the rotations, the boxing out, the effort,” he said. “The emphasis is on doing those fundamental things, and that stuff will come.”
With rookie Frank Ntilikina struggling to make a positive impact in 4:55 of action, newly signed Trey Burke finished Friday night’s game. Hornacek didn’t say Burke has supplanted Ntilikina in the rotation, only that he has “another option.”
“The night maybe Frank’s not having a great night or something, we have Trey for that opportunity,” he said. “Same with Jarrett [Jack]. We’ve got three guys that can play that spot. Kind of look how it goes. Nobody is great every single night, that’s why we’re a team. Guys can step it up. [Friday] night, Trey was there to do that.”
Burke had seven points, including five in the fourth quarter, and two assists. “I feel like I did a great job of getting the team in sets, running the show toward the end,” he said. “I think I did a great job controlling the tempo. I think I could have been more aggressive. But as far as getting everybody involved, I did a good job with that. I know I can help this team win. My job is to continue to be ready when my number’s called.”