The month of January presents both the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics with opportunities to establish themselves as playoff contenders in the Eastern Conference.
The next two games give both teams the chance to make the road more difficult for the other.
The Knicks will look to earn a second straight win Thursday night, when they are scheduled to host the Celtics in the opener of a home-and-home between the longtime rivals. The set is slated to conclude Saturday in Boston.
The two teams enter Thursday tied for 10th place — and the final berth in the play-in tournament — in the East after the Knicks earned a 104-94 win over the visiting Indiana Pacers on Tuesday and the host Celtics fell to the San Antonio Spurs, 99-97, on Wednesday.
For the Knicks, the game Tuesday marked the sixth of 11 consecutive games against fellow sub-.500 foes. Of New York’s 15 games this month, 10 are against teams that began January with a losing record — and an 11th is against the Los Angeles Clippers, who ended December at 18-18.
The Knicks’ pursuit of a second straight playoff berth — last spring’s trip to the postseason snapped an Eastern Conference-high seven-year drought — could hinge on whether RJ Barrett and Julius Randle can replicate the form they displayed Tuesday, when Barrett had 32 points and Randle finished with 30 points and 16 rebounds.
The duo did most of their damage by driving into the paint. Barrett and Randle combined to go 4-of-12 from 3-point land but 20-of-28 from inside the arc. They also made 14 trips (eight for Barrett, six for Randle) to the free throw line — as many as the rest of the Knicks combined.
“With both guys, it’s them attacking the rim,” Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said Tuesday night. “The game will tell you what to do, If we settle for shots, it’s going to cause problems. If we’re attacking the rim, it makes us different.”
An unsuccessful foray into the lane left the Celtics lamenting what could have been Wednesday night. Jaylen Brown, who finished with a game-high 30 points, stole Jock Landale’s in-bounds pass near midcourt with 5.7 seconds left, but he was trailed down the court by Dejounte Murray and, with Murray’s hand in his face, missed a scoop layup that would have sent the game to overtime.
“I had a good steal, was going against the clock, I just blew the layup,” Brown said, “It’s a tough loss. What can you say? We’ve got another game (Thursday).”
The loss snapped a two-game winning streak for the Celtics, who are in the midst of opening the month with six straight games against teams that ended December with a losing record. Overall this month, Boston will play 11 of its 16 games against foes that entered the new year under .500.
–Field Level Media