A lot has changed in the 12 days since the Knicks last took the Garden floor.
They left for the Midwest immediately after one of their worst performances of the young season, amid questions beginning to bubble about coach Tom Thibodeau’s job security, and they have returned with momentum following a feel-good 3-2 road trip.
After allowing 145 points to the Thunder a week ago this past Sunday, they played with more energy on the defensive end and performed very well in the fourth quarter of the three wins, despite several players battling the flu. Young players such as Jericho Sims and Quentin Grimes showed glimpses of promise, while Jalen Brunson continued to thrive in his first year as a Knick, closing the trip with a brilliant 34-point, nine-assist masterpiece.
Now the 9-9 Knicks have to build on that excursion and defeat some quality teams at home, which they have been unable to do thus far. They have played better on the road overall, beating the likes of the Timberwolves, 76ers (albeit without Joel Embiid and James Harden), Jazz, Nuggets and Thunder, and performing well in hard-fought losses to the Grizzlies and Cavaliers. They will have gone four days without a game by the time tip-off arrives on Friday night against the Trail Blazers.
“It’s a challenge. You’re coming off a trip, and obviously, you have a recovery day, then you have practice and then the games. They come, and you gotta be ready,” Thibodeau said. “This time of the year, that’s a challenge. So, just be ready, and we gotta be locked in. We gotta be focused, and we gotta be ready to go when that ball goes up on Friday.”
At the Garden, the Knicks own a middling 4-3 mark, and those wins have come over the Pistons (twice), Magic and shorthanded Hornets. Those teams own a combined record of 15-42. Meanwhile, the Celtics, Thunder and Hawks manhandled the Knicks at home. It was a problem a year ago as well, with Thibodeau’s team going 17-24 there. In the Eastern Conference, only the Pistons, Pacers and Magic had fewer wins at home last season.
This upcoming stretch will offer the Knicks an opportunity to begin to right themselves at home. However like the recent road trip, it won’t be easy. It begins Friday against the Damian Lillard-less Trail Blazers, followed by a Sunday visit from Ja Morant and the Grizzlies. The Bucks come to town Wednesday on the tail-end of a back-to-back against the Pistons in Detroit. Next weekend features a challenging back-to-back against the Mavericks and Cavaliers. Three days later, the Hawks and Garden-villain Trae Young return.
Those six teams all own winning records and are projected playoff teams. First up is Portland, which got off to a very strong start winning nine of its first 12 games but has dropped four straight. The Blazers are in the midst of a difficult four-game road trip. Plus, Lillard has missed the last two games with a calf strain and won’t be available against the Knicks.
“It’s a team that plays hard and can break [you] down off the dribble, and they got shooting, and they [are a good] rebounding [team],” Thibodeau said. “They have a lot of stuff that we have to be ready for.”