The Knicks’ return to the NBA’s Christmas slate after a three-year absence was intended to be a blood-feud rematch from last year’s playoffs.
Now, they are just hoping a dash of yuletide spirit can lift them to a needed victory.
Tom Thibodeau’s fading team staggers into the league’s holiday showcase Saturday against the Hawks losers of nine of their last 12 games.
While RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley could be back in the lineup for the Knicks after being cleared to return from the league’s health and safety protocols, Atlanta also is a COVID-affected shell of the rising squad that ousted them in the first round of the playoffs last spring.
Garden villain Trae Young and teammates Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Kevin Huerter and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot have been out due to the league’s COVID protocols. The Hawks also are missing De’Andre Hunter (wrist) and Solomon Hill (hamstring) due to injuries.
“This is the reality of our league,” Thibodeau said following a walk-through practice Friday in Tarrytown. “I think being mentally tough when you face adversity is probably the most important thing in life.
“So things haven’t been going our way. We’ve had guys out, as has most of the league, and it’s how quickly we can adapt. We talked about that today.”
After wasting Kemba Walker’s electrifying 44-point performance Thursday in a home loss to the Wizards, the Knicks are now 6-11 at Madison Square Garden this season, including six losses in their past seven home contests.
“That’s been pretty disappointing. Especially to our fans, they’ve been cheering their behinds off for us, trying to get us going,” Walker said after the game. “Unfortunately, it hasn’t been going our way.
“We’ll change it. We’ll get there. I don’t think it’ll happen for too much longer. I definitely think we are getting better. We’ll change it for those guys and start racking up the wins.”
The Knicks (14-18) have slipped to 12th place in the Eastern Conference, 1 ½ games behind No. 10 Atlanta (15-16) for the postseason play-in cutoff.
Thibodeau again lamented his team’s porous defensive play, which allowed the Wizards to rack up 16 3-pointers while shooting 56 percent from the floor Thursday night, despite the COVID absences of leading scorer Bradley Beal and starting wing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
“It’s a lot. I could sit here and talk 30 minutes about it, but it’s a lot,” Julius Randle said Friday when asked to pinpoint reasons for the Knicks’ defensive deficiencies. “One thing at a time, we have to have a conscious effort of what we’re trying to do with our identity and stick to our game plan.”
The Knicks haven’t played on Christmas since 2018, when they lost to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks en route to a 17-65 campaign, which matched the worst record in franchise history. But this will be their 54th Christmas game overall, the most in league history, and their 22 all-time holiday wins are second-most behind the Lakers (24).
“We’re thrilled. It’s an honor and a privilege,” Thibodeau said. “You also don’t want to overlook all the sacrifices your guys do make, but I think all our guys are excited to be playing on Christmas, and hopefully we’ll be ready to go.”
Randle and Obi Toppin both said they expect the festive occasion to be “amazing,” especially if Saturday can serve as the catalyst for the Knicks finally to string together some wins as their roster depth is restored.
“I was talking to Thibs, talking about how we need more energy and everybody’s, like, we just don’t have that energy spark right now,” Toppin said. “I feel like we’re definitely gonna get it soon, like real soon.
“It’s just gonna hit us one day and we’re gonna get on top of our game and start winning a lot more games now.”