With Mitchell Robinson poised to return after the All-Star break, the New York Knicks are in good shape to make a run at one of the six outright playoff berths. But the race to the regular season’s finish line is expected to go down the wire.
Sitting sixth in the East before the All-Star break, the Knicks are trailing crosstown rival Brooklyn Nets by only two games for the fifth seed. The Miami Heat are hot on their tails.
The Knicks have a 6 1/2 cushion against the 11th-seed Chicago Bulls. So barring any major injuries, their floor is play-in while the ceiling is as high as the fifth seed.
With the top four teams — Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Cleveland — having built a cushion, let’s examine where the Knicks and their remaining schedule stand against their rivals heading into the stretch run.
Brooklyn Nets (34-24)
Current rank: 5th / Strength of remaining schedule: .512
The Nets have turned from a championship contender to a fringe playoff team after the hasty exits of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. With four new starters, they will need more time to gel with holdover Nic Claxton.
Coach Jacque Vaughn’s new multi-year contract should firmly entrench him as the team’s biggest star in their post-Durant/Irving era.
Their last game before the All-Star break — a surprising 116-105 win over the Heat behind Mikal Bridges’ career-high 45 points — gave them a much-needed cushion and a blueprint for the rest of the season.
If Bridges continue to grow as their new go-to-guy, and Cam Thomas embraces a Sixth Man role, the Nets could have a shot.
They have the length and versatility to compete. But chemistry issues and Ben Simmons could hold them back. With only 24 games left — five of them against the East’s top three teams, three against Nuggets and Kings, and one more against the Knicks — their margin for error is slim to none.
New York Knicks (33-27)
Current rank: 6th / Strength of remaining schedule: .512
The addition of Josh Hart answered concerns about their bench production. Their 3-0 record since his arrival speaks for itself.
Hart’s seamless fit with the group led by his college teammate Jalen Brunson and two-time All-Star Julius Randle is shaping up to be a difference-maker for the Knicks, much like when they added Derrick Rose for the stretch run that led to a rare playoff appearance in 2021.
Their offense is currently ranked seventh in the league. Scoring shouldn’t be a problem, especially if RJ Barrett can rediscover his shooting touch in their final 22 games. But it will not be smooth sailing with the three of the top four teams in the West — Nuggets, Kings, and Clippers — along with East’s top teams Celtics (2), and a game each against the Cavaliers and the Nets still on the horizon.
Robinson’s impending return should help the Knicks bring their defense to an elite level after tumbling outside the top 10 in his absence.
FiveThirtyEight predicts the Knicks and old rival Heat to finish with identical 45-37 records, tied for the sixth seed. New York won their first meeting, a 106-104 nail-biter at the Garden earlier this month. They will face three more times, with each game bearing heavier significance as April draws closer.
Miami Heat (32-27)
Current rank: 7th / Strength of remaining schedule: .512
The Miami Heat have added Kevin Love to their roster via the buyout market in their bid to boost their 26th-ranked offense.
Love is a stretch big who can play alongside or without Bam Adebayo.
But the biggest key for the Heat is getting everyone healthy.
Eight of their last 23 games will be against the Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Atlanta Hawks (29-30)
Current rank: 8th / Strength of remaining schedule: .523
The Hawks have pushed the panic button, firing their erstwhile head coach Nate McMillan.
Suffice it to say, the Trae Young and Dejounte Murray pairing hasn’t panned the way they expected.
The Knicks have split their four meetings with the Hawks this season, with their last, a wire-to-wire 122-101 win in Atlanta, hastening McMillan’s exit.
With the third-toughest schedule left, it will be fascinating to watch what the new coach, whoever he is, can do with a team that cratered to the seventh-worst defense in the league.
Despite the uncertainty in Atlanta, FiveThirtyEight still sees them finishing with a 41-41 record and the seventh seed.
Washington Wizards (28-30)
Current rank: 9th / Strength of remaining schedule: .497
The Wizards have the easiest schedule among the teams in the fourth to 10th spots in the East. That will begin in a home game against the Knicks on Friday.
They have split their first two meetings. Their last face-off on April 2 at the Garden could be pivotal to their playoff chances.
The Wizards need their Big 3 (Bradley Beal, Kyle Kuzma, and Kristaps Porzingis) healthy for the stretch run, as aside from two games against the Knicks, they will still play the Hawks (4), Toronto Raptors (3) and five games against the East’s top 3.
FiveThirtyEight see them slipping to 10th.
Toronto Raptors (28-31)
Current rank: 10th / Strength of remaining schedule: .520
The Raptors have finally solved their frontline woes by plucking back Jakob Poetl from San Antonio. They are 2-1 since his return to Toronto.
Their decision to hold on to Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Gary Trent, Jr. past the trade deadline makes them a dangerous team down the stretch.
The Knicks have only won once against the Raptors this season.
But the Raptors will likely fall short and settle for the play-in tournament, with nine of their last 23 games will be against the Celtics (2), Bucks (2), Nuggets (2), and one each against the 76ers, Cavaliers, and Heat.
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