It’s rare to catch New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau smiling during games. But he did during the Knicks’ wire-to-wire 122-101 victory over their 2021 playoffs tormentor Atlanta Hawks Wednesday night on the road.
After Jalen Brunson dominated the Hawks backcourt consists of former All-Stars Trae Young and Dejounte Murray, he said: “I think we’re in a good place.”
Yes, the Knicks are in a good place, moving past the Miami Heat for no. 6, the last outright playoff berth, in the Eastern Conference following their latest win.
The Knicks have weathered the absence of Mitchell Robinson, their defensive anchor, with an 8-6 record after two straight losses since they lost him to a thumb injury.
They had the second-best defense in the league during a 24-game stretch when Thibodeau shortened his rotation on a Dec. 4 win over the Cavaliers until Robinson went down with the injury on Jan. 18.
So far, they have beaten all the teams above them in the East except for the Milwaukee Bucks, but two of their losses against them were close calls. They have beaten the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Philadelphia 76ers twice.
The Knicks are 3-0 since Josh Hart was added to the mix.
But even if Thibodeau showed a rare smile, he’s far from satisfied.
“I think we’ve steadily improved but we know there’s a long way to go and the challenge will become greater after the [All-Star] break. So we can’t feel too good about ourselves,” Thibodeau once again warned.
The Knicks have 22 games left, the eighth-toughest schedule in the league, according to Tankathon.
Breathing down their necks with the ninth-toughest schedule are the seventh-seed Miami Heat, who are just half-game behind them. And then above them are the fifth-seed Brooklyn Nets with the seventh-toughest schedule left.
So, it will be a tight race after the All-Star break that is expected to go down to the wire for the last two outright playoff berths.
The Knicks will have three representatives at this weekend’s All-Star festivities in Utah.
Quentin Grimes will participate in the Rising Stars Challenge. Jericho Sims is a betting favorite to win the Slam Dunk contest. Julius Randle is in the All-Star game for the second time and was added to the 3-point shooting contest.
As for Jalen Brunson, who got snubbed, he said the break would give him time to relax, barring any last-minute invite as an injury replacement.
“Get our rest and recovery to the guys who are going to go and participate in the All-Star Weekend. We’re very happy for them, for our organization. We want them to enjoy it,” Thibodeau said. “But we also know when we come back, we have to be ready to go.”
“We have to keep building and if we keep the focus in the right place, good things are gonna happen.”
A return to the playoffs, with more weapons and more balanced on both ends of the floor, is within their reach.
They are in a good place but shouldn’t feel too good about it.
“Refocus, reset, and come back stronger,” RJ Barrett said.
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