Don’t look now, but the New York Knicks finally seem to be headed in the right direction. And they’re poised to snap their playoff drought before anyone expected.
New York moved into fourth place in the Eastern Conference with Sunday’s 109-90 rout of the Detroit Pistons. The Knicks have won three in a row and seven of nine to climb back over .500 at 18-17, the first time they’ve been above .500 on March 1 since the 2012-13 season — which is also the last year they made the playoffs.
Most thought the Knicks would struggle through another rebuilding season. But they are young and hungry and eager to start changing expectations.
“Honestly, in our locker room it’s expected,” said first-time All-Star Julius Randle. “I’m not really surprised where we’re at as a team. We have a certain level of focus on a night to night basis that gives us a shot every night.”
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The Knicks are in position to get back to the postseason thanks in large part to a defense that has morphed into one of the best in the league.
Call it the Tom Thibodeau effect.
In his first year in New York, Thibodeau has seamlessly implemented his famed defense and has the Knicks second in the NBA in defensive rating, according to NBA.com, behind the Los Angeles Lakers and ahead of the Utah Jazz. The Knicks allow the fewest points per game, the lowest opponent field goal percentage and the lowest opponent 3-point percentage.
“We’ve got a young team. We have a team that can grow,” Thibodeau said. “If we get everyone committed and willing to sacrifice to put the team first, good things can happen.”
After the top three in the East — Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Milwaukee — the standings are tight. Just 1½ games separate New York in fourth and Chicago in 10th. The second tier of East playoff contenders is wide open.
Can New York emerge from that group? The offense has struggled despite Randle’s breakthrough as a scorer and playmaker. But if the Knicks can continue playing top-notch defense, they have as good a chance as anyone to grab the No. 4 seed.
Thibodeau isn’t satisfied with simply being one game over .500 and wants the Knicks thinking bigger: “One, I’m never happy. Two, I always think we can do better.”
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Here are four more things to know today in the NBA:
Rookie of the Year frontrunner
LaMelo Ball moved into the Charlotte Hornets’ starting lineup at the beginning of February and promptly ran off a month in which he looked like the best rookie of his class. Ball averaged 20.1 points, 6.7 assists and 6.2 rebounds in 13 games in February, while shooting 45.2% from the field and 40.7% from 3-point range. Charlotte went 7-6 to climb to eighth in the East. Ball and the Hornets will look to start March on the right note tonight in Portland against the Blazers.
The Nets’ eight-game win streak came to an end Saturday against the Mavericks, but there’s no cause for concern in Brooklyn. They remain a top contender in the East, and the emergence of Bruce Brown over the past week has given the Nets reason to relax a bit while Kevin Durant is out until after the All-Star break. Brown’s offensive game is starting to blossom after he helped stabilize a defense that struggled early after the acquisition of James Harden. The Nets face the Spurs tonight in San Antonio with their eye on starting a new win streak.
Unstoppable force vs. immovable object
The New Orleans Pelicans have been one of the most confounding teams in the NBA this season, but Zion Williamson’s star turn has been immensely fun to watch. Nothing on the court is scarier than Williamson barreling down the lane with a full head of stream. The Utah Jazz are one of the few teams equipped to slow Williamson, with a stout interior defense anchored by two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. They face off tonight in Utah with the Jazz looking to keep rolling and the Pelicans in need of a notable win.
Rockets’ fire sale imminent
The Houston Rockets’ losing streak reached 11 games Sunday night with the most embarrassing loss of the season: a 133-84 blowout at the hands of Memphis in which Houston had the worst single-game shooting percentage in franchise history (27.7%). As the losses mount, the Rockets may look to jumpstart a rebuild and trade players like Victor Oladipo and P.J. Tucker. The Rockets will look to snap their slide tonight when they host the Cavaliers.
Follow Matt Eppers on Twitter @meppers_.