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Knicks can pick up ground, momentum on homestead before All-Star break

The Knicks have the chance to get close to .500 before the All-Star break.

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The Knicks are in the midst of a five-game home stand, so if there’s ever a time to gain some traction and creep back into the lower rung of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket before they disperse for the All-Star break, now is the time.

Granted, the slate isn’t an easy one, as they still have to play the Los Angeles Clippers, a frisky Denver Nuggets squad, and the San Antonio Spurs – after already losing the first game of the home stand to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday. But if the Knicks (22-30) are to make themselves relevant again, they need to win these games, regardless of the opponent.

Once upon a time, the Knicks were a top-four team in the conference and four games over .500. But since Christmas, they’ve got nothing but coal. Carmelo Anthony is embroiled in a bitter work relationship with team president Phil Jackson – a toxic work environment that was created by the Zen Master. Derrick Rose can’t stay on the court – when he’s not going AWOL. First-year head coach Jeff Hornacek can’t seem to get his rotation right. Young, budding players like Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Willy Hernangomez see inconsistent minutes. And even second-year phenom Kristaps Porzingis has seemingly regressed in recent weeks.

Monday night’s tilt with the Los Angeles Lakers should be a great start to get affairs in order, as the Lakers (17-36) sport one of the worst records in the league, and the young team is still painfully learning on the fly under rookie head coach Luke Walton.

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New York has won four-straight in the series, and it should continue tomorrow night. The Lakers have the third-fewest wins in the league, have the 18th-best offense, and the 27th-ranked defense. All the above factors should be a great elixir for the Knicks – at least for one night.

Monday night is a very winnable game, and players are already talking about it being must-win.

Backup point guard Brandon Jennings, whose near heroics Saturday night almost led to an epic comeback, noted that the real way to get back on track and gain some traction is rather simple.

“We just need to play hard and play with effort. Who cares what the score is? Just play hard. That’s the main thing … dive on the floor,” Jennings said, adding that tempo is key, too. “I just feel we need to play faster. It just makes it easier for everybody.”

Jennings, who notched 23 points and 10 assists in place of Rose, who missed his fourth straight game with a sprained left ankle, reasoned that guys can’t get down because the Knicks are still “right there” in the race for a playoff seed.

“It seems like they [the Garden faithful] have been booing a lot since Jan. 1, because we’ve been playing so poorly. But we know it’s all of us, [and] not just one person,” he said, realizing the importance of tomorrow’s game. “It’s a must-win game. [But] it seems like we keep saying every game is a must-win game.”

Monday is an important contest – and honestly, Jennings is right in saying they all are from now on – but there is some good news for the Knicks, even after defeats, because as bad as they’ve played since the holiday – losers in 12 of the 18 games since – they’re still only 1.5 games back of the eighth-seeded Detroit Pistons (23-28). The Charlotte Hornets (tied with the Pistons in the standings) and Milwaukee Bucks (22-28) are the only teams standing between New York and the final playoff seed, and neither of those underachieving squads poses too daunting a threat.

New York needs to heed Jennings’s pleas and play faster, but they also need to start faster. They constantly find themselves allowing 30 points in opening quarters, and the Cavs game wasn’t different. The Knicks gave up 34 points in the first quarter, which was the impetus that propelled Cleveland to eventually extend its largest lead to 84-57 with 2:37 remaining in the third quarter. New York was overmatched by LeBron James and the defending champions for three-and-a-half quarters before Jennings started the rally – and that was without Cavs’ star point guard Kyrie Irving.

The too-little, too-late narrative has been a frustratingly recurring theme this season. But there’s still time to rewrite this season’s pending conclusion. They need to begin that journey now, though. Otherwise, the Knicks will continue to be stuck in basketball purgatory and continue to exasperatingly teeter that line between looking like a franchise still playing for playoff contention or looking as if they’re lottery bound.

Knicks notes:

  • Starting center Joakim Noah played just six minutes against the Cavs due to a sore left hamstring. His status for Monday is up in the air.
  • Hernangomez is making it increasingly tough for Hornacek to keep him pinned to the pine, as the rookie had another solid game in registering 16 points. He’s averaging a double-double of 15.7 points and 11.7 rebounds in his last three games.
  • One highlight about Saturday night was the team honoring their 1988-89 Atlantic Division Championship team with appearances by Mark Jackson, Rod Strickland, Gerald Wilkins, Trent Tucker and Johnny Newman, aka the “Bomb Squad.” That Rick Pitino-led team helped set a then-NBA record with 386 made 3-pointers (on 1,147 attempts) during that season.
 
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