The Knicks closed the regular season one year ago on a scintillating 16-4 kick to secure the fourth seed at the Eastern Conference, marking their first postseason appearance since 2013.
Little about this season has felt like that one for Tom Thibodeau’s team in his second season at the helm, but they probably need a similar closing run to even make it into the 7-10 play-in scenarios in an improved East.
With 23 games remaining after they return from the All-Star break beginning with Friday’s visit to Miami, the Knicks are 3 ½ games behind Charlotte and Atlanta for the ninth and 10th playoff seeds in their conference. The sliding 12th-place Knicks, who dropped seven of their final eight games before the break, also sit 2 ½ games behind No. 11 Washington.
With the eighth-place Nets six full games ahead of the Knicks — and planning to soon add injured Kevin Durant and newly acquired three-time All-Star Ben Simmons to their lineup — here is a breakdown of the teams left to vie for the final two play-in berts.
9. Hornets, 29-31
Charlotte looked like one of the league’s most improved teams at 28-22 through 50 games on Jan. 28, but James Borrego’s squad dropped nine of its final 10 games before the break.
First-time All-Star guard LaMelo Ball leads the Hornets in points (20.0) and assists (7.5) assists per game, and Miles Bridges is a top contender for the league’s Most Improved Player award, which was won last year by Knicks forward Julius Randle.
Michael Jordan’s front office also picked up valuable reserve big man Montrezl Harrell at the trade deadline, but the Hornets have been hurt lately by the absence of floor-spacing wing Gordon Hayward (16.1 ppg) since Feb. 7 due to a left ankle injury with no timetable given for a return.
What’s left?: The Hornets will play 13 of their remaining 22 games at home, with an overall opponents’ combined winning percentage of .490, including two games against the Knicks.
10. Hawks, 28-30
Atlanta also has taken a step back from the team that ousted the Knicks in five games in the first round of the playoffs and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to Milwaukee, the eventual NBA champions, in six.
MSG nemesis Trae Young is fifth in the league in scoring (27.8 ppg) and fourth in assists (9.3), and Clint Capela is still a beast on the boards (12.1 rebounds per game). But De’Andre Hunter missed two months in the first half due to wrist surgery, and forward John Collins suffered a heel injury right before the break.
What’s left?: The Hawks have 11 home games and 13 road contests remaining, with the fifth-best opponents winning percentage (.483) in the league. They visit the Garden on March 22.
11. Wizards, 27-31
Already without All-Star guard and leading scorer Bradley Beal for the season due to left wrist surgery earlier this month, the Wizards dealt Harrell to Charlotte and former Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans to Dallas at the trade deadline.
Former Knicks unicorn Kristaps Porzingis hasn’t played since arriving from the Mavericks or since Jan. 29 due to recurring knee soreness, and the Wizards limped into the break with a 4-10 record over their final 14 games before the break.
What’s left?: Washington also has an 11/13 home-road split the rest of the way. But its strength of schedule situation is more favorable than even Atlanta’s at .472, the fourth-lowest opponents’ record in the league.
12. Knicks, 25-34
Might veteran point guard Derrick Rose’s eventual return from December ankle surgery have the impact his midseason acquisition did one year ago?
Thibodeau vowed that “everything is on the table” concerning his rotation after the break, but he’s stubbornly declined to alter his regular rotation or to find more minutes for the likes of Obi Toppin, Quentin Grimes (until recently) or January pickup Cam Reddish ( from the Hawks) over an brutal 3-13 slide since they were 22-21 and in a playoff position on Jan. 15th.
What’s left?: The Knicks have nearly an even split of home (11) and road games (12) remaining, although their records at the Garden (13-17) and away (12-17) also are about the same. Their strength of schedule is the most daunting of these four teams, the fourth-hardest in the league at .529 – beginning with their next four games against Miami, Philadelphia (twice) and Phoenix.