Schedule gives Knicks chance to jump into NBA playoff spot

As the Knicks emerge nearly back to full strength from their inclusion in the NBA’s ongoing COVID outbreak, they will look to take advantage of undermanned opponents and a favorable schedule to climb back into a playoff position in the Eastern Conference.

Tom Thibodeau’s team will open a four-game road trip Tuesday night in Minnesota against a Timberwolves squad that was without its three top players — Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell — in Monday’s home game against the Celtics due to the league’s health and safety protocols.

The road trip also continues a stretch of 14 consecutive games for the Knicks — beginning with Saturday’s win over the Hawks at the Garden — to be played exclusively against teams that were no better than .500 through Sunday’s action. The Knicks have not won consecutive games since posting three straight victories to improve to 5-1 to open the season on Oct. 30.

Kemba Walker (8) and Alec Burks (right) celebrate during the Knicks’ 101-87 win over the Hawks.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

After visiting Minnesota, the Knicks (15-18) also will play the next night in Detroit against the decimated Pistons, who have lost 17 of their last 18 games — including a 14-point defeat last week at the Garden — to plummet to the bottom of the league standings at 5-27 overall. Detroit also has young stars Cade Cunningham, Isaiah Stewart, Killian Hayes and Cory Joseph among its contingent of COVID-stricken cases.

The Knicks (8-7 on the road this season) will round out the trip with stops in Oklahoma City and Toronto bridging the New Year. The Thunder mostly have avoided COVID absences to their top players, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has led OKC to four wins in its past five entering Tuesday’s game against the Kings.

The Knicks, who have held no media availability the past two days, are likely to get back second-year guard Immanuel Quickley for Tuesday’s game against the Timberwolves. He was cleared but did not play in Saturday’s win over the Hawks, though RJ Barrett and rookie Quentin Grimes made their on-court returns from their respective shutdowns.

Kevin Knox also was cleared to rejoin the team on Saturday, leaving only Miles McBride, Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims as the remaining Knicks still in health and safety protocols.

Thibodeau had intended to reduce his rotation from 10 to nine players when Kemba Walker initially was benched in late November, but the multiple COVID absences upended those plans. The emergence of Grimes before and after his shutdown could push that number back to 10 once Quickley returns.

Walker has averaged 26.0 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.0 assists in four consecutive starts following a nine-game benching, including a 44-point game Thursday against the Wizards and the first Christmas triple-double in team history Saturday against the Hawks. He was named as the Eastern Conference player of the week on Monday.

Knicks
Obi Toppin
AP

Julius Randle noted Saturday that he and Walker have been “feeding off each other” in recent games after struggling to develop chemistry earlier in the season, adding, “We realize that the team will go as we go.”

“[We were] trying to figure out how to play with each other and those things take time,” Randle said. “We kind of got, like, a second shot at it.”

The 31-year-old Walker also has logged an average of 40.3 minutes per game over those four appearances, but the return of Quickley to the second unit should spread out the backcourt playing time. Alec Burks was taken out of the starting lineup after Barrett returned, with Derrick Rose also sidelined for at least eight weeks following last week’s ankle surgery.