Knicks look to keep the good times rolling as they head out on long road trip

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Stefan Bondy, New York Daily News
·5 min read
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Tom Thibodeau won’t let it turn into complacency, but the Knicks deserve a sigh of relief and satisfaction heading into their longest road trip of the season.

When the second half of the schedule was announced, this looked like the stretch that would make or break New York’s chances at the postseason, even if it was just a play-in tournament. To be honest, most viewed it as the reason the Knicks wouldn’t break their playoff drought.

But now they’ll enter this six-game, 10-day tour of the West in sole possession of fourth in the conference, fresh off their hottest stretch as winners of 10 of their last 11 games.

“We’re in a good position right now,” RJ Barrett said. “I think the ball’s in our court. We’re trying to control our own destiny at this point.”

But the games matter. The Knicks are still in the thick of the woods, with more of a likelihood that they fall in the standings than crack the Top 3. The trip starts easy enough with the Rockets and Grizzlies on back-to-backs beginning Sunday, but then they enter the gauntlet — at Nuggets (and MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic), at Suns (tied for best record in NBA), at Clippers (Kawhi Leonard will have two days off to prepare for this game) and at Lakers (LeBron and Anthony Davis are back from their injuries).

For the Knicks, the good news is it’s impossible to envision them slipping out of the East’s Top 10, which ensures them a spot in the play-in tournament, at the very least. The bad news is New York sits atop a condensed group of 4-through-7 in the East (Knicks, Hawks, Celtics, Heat), with no more than 2 1/2 games separating the top from the bottom heading into Saturday’s games.

So what’s at stake for the Knicks? It’s two-fold.

The most important is to bypass a play-in game, which would mean finishing in the Top 6. The Knicks are in good position despite their difficult schedule. The other part is seeding. If the top of the East holds, there’s an understood benefit to finishing 4th or 5th because it avoids facing either the Nets, Sixers and Bucks in the first round.

The Knicks went 2-7 against those teams (and one victory was against a severely undermanned Bucks squad). The best potential first round matchup is the Hawks, just based on experience levels.

Thibodeau isn’t straying from the immediate task. That mentality got them this far.

“I think the important thing is to have a routine of how you prepare for each game. And don’t get away from it,” the coach said. “So just know your opponent really well, get ready for that game, don’t worry about the game after, or the game after that. Don’t look backwards. I don’t want working in reverse, either. Just focus on exactly what’s in front of us.”

WHEN WILL ROBINSON RETURN?

More than a month after surgery on his broken foot, Mitchell Robinson continues to heal from his broken foot but hasn’t begun any basketball activities, according to Thibodeau.

Robinson’s return timeline remains unclear, although it’s unlikely he’ll return in the regular season.

“The normal guidelines that we’ve had since the initial surgery. So it’s pretty much the same. Just got to go through the process. And he’s still not doing anything on the court,” Thibodeau said. “So that would be the next progression. So once he gets to where he can do something on the court, then we’ll have an update from the medical people. But the healing is going along as planned. He just has to be patient and work his way through it.”

Robinson has missed 17 games since sustaining the injury. His absence has been mitigated by the emergence of Nerlens Noel as a dependable rim protector.

“I don’t want to put any timetable on it. To be honest, I don’t know. That would be up to the doctors, the trainers, all the medical people. We don’t want to take any chances with it. So we’re going to be very patient and make sure he’s completely healed before we get him going again.”

QUICK GOES DEEP

Immanuel Quickley has expanded his range to well beyond the 3-point line, joining the likes of Steph Curry and Dame Lillard in hoisting shots that were once deemed wasteful in the NBA.

The rookie connected on two of those shots recently despite time to set up for a closer look, and Thibodeau encourages it.

“I don’t want to put a lid on it,” the coach said. “I said to you guys at the start of the season, just watching him shoot. I see the way he practices, and sort’ve what’s going on with the league, if he’s comfortable from the 3, we actually have a four-point line at our practice facility, and he shoots just as effectively from that area. So we want him to read the defense. When he has an opening, sometimes in transition those are the best looks that he’ll get. Particularly when teams are blitzing him. So we have a lot of confidence in his shooting. That’s his gift.”