With four games left in the regular season, the Knicks and the Lakers will play a big game at the Staples Center on Tuesday night.
That fact alone is nothing short of a miracle, given that the Knicks haven’t played a big game in May against anyone in years. But what’s even more mind-blowing is the fact that it’s the Knicks, not the defending champs, who are surging.
"That team is red-hot," the Lakers’ Anthony Davis said Monday after practice. "They came in and beat the Clippers. So they’re rolling. We have to get that game."
Though both teams have 38-30 records, they enter the game in very different positions.
A win Tuesday night coupled with a Boston loss would guarantee that the Knicks finish in the top six in the Eastern Conference, avoiding the scary play-in round. It also would end a seven-year Knicks playoff drought, guaranteeing them a place in the regular postseason.
Meanwhile, the Lakers have gone 3-8 in their last 11 games and have dropped to seventh place in the Western Conference, 1 1/2 games behind sixth-place Portland.
The prospect of participating in the play-in round does not sit well with LeBron James.
Reports are that James is looking to return Tuesday from the high right ankle sprain that he suffered in March. He returned to the lineup on April 30 after missing 20 games but aggravated the injury and missed four more games.
James made it clear last week that he does not think much of the NBA’s new format. "Whoever came up with that [expletive] needs to be fired," he said.
If James plays, it will mark the first time the Knicks have seen him this season. In fact, both James and Davis were out with injuries when the Knicks defeated the Lakers, 111-96, at the Garden on April 12.
Davis has been the one recent bright spot for the Lakers. In a win over the Suns on Sunday, he became the first Laker to record at least 42 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, three blocks and three steals in the same game. His performance helped the reigning champions redeem themselves after back-to-back losses to the Trail Blazers and Clippers.
The Knicks have every right to be feeling good entering Tuesday’s game after an impressive 106-100 win over the Clippers on Sunday. The Clippers, who were at full strength, are a bona fide Western Conference power.
"We feel like we can beat anybody," Julius Randle said. "Every time we step on the court, we have the confidence as a team that we’re going to win a game."
The Knicks have done just about everything right this season. They have avoided major injuries to key players. They have for the most part avoided the huge COVID-19 protocol problems that have plagued some teams. And they have managed to quickly rebound from disappointments that might have sent them into a tailspin in recent years.
The Knicks’ win over the Clippers came just two days after they fell apart in the fourth quarter in Phoenix. With a win over the Lakers, the Knicks would finish a challenging six-game road trip with a 4-2 record.
"Everybody has been doubting this team all along," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said after the Clippers game.
Of course, there was good reason for the doubts heading into the season, given that the team on the surface wasn’t significantly improved from the one that went 21-45 last season.
This team is nothing like that team. They play defense. They are resilient. They believe in one another. And they believe in their coach.
Sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. If the Knicks beat a Lakers team with James and Davis on Tuesday night, that certainly will be the case.
Yes, this is a game that matters.