‘The heart of the team has been special’: Knicks have chance to make statement Tuesday vs. Lakers

RJ Barrett Taj Gibson Knicks
The Knicks came through with a momentous win over the Los Angeles Clippers Sunday.
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

This was the litmus test of a road trip to see if the New York Knicks really were for real.

One of the NBA’s most pleasant surprises catapulting one of its proudest franchises back to relevancy entered a brutal six-game west-coast road trip holding the Eastern Conference’s No. 4 seed with nine games remaining in the regular season.

Trips to Houston, Memphis, Phoenix, Denver, and Los Angeles awaited — four of those six matchups coming against teams firmly near the top of the Western Conference standings — would be the swing to make or break this team’s contention for a top-half spot in the East.

Five of those six games of the west coast trip are done, and the Knicks are still here in the No. 4 spot in the East with a monster 106-100 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday night, clinching at least a .500 record on the trip.

“I think we’re learning a lot on this trip and we’re learning a lot all season long as the season progressed,” Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “The toughness to win on the road, to be playing against these teams, it’s telling us a lot, but there’s still a long way to go.”

After beating the Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies, the Knicks dropped consecutive games to the West’s second-seeded Phoenix Suns and fourth-seeded Denver Nuggets before their win over the No. 3 Clippers. They hold a one-game lead over the Atlanta Hawks for the fourth spot with the final game out west coming against a hungry Los Angeles Lakers side looking to get out of the play-in tournament and into a top-six seed.

Beating LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the defending champs would put the ultimate exclamation point on what would be a 4-2 trip out west — one that would garner even more momentum with just three games remaining after Tuesday’s game out in Hollywood.

“The heart of the team has been special from the beginning,” head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “There’s an appreciation for that. The challenge is to be hungry, don’t change now. It’s what we’ve done all year. Just concentrate on improvement and the next opponent and that’s what we look forward to doing.”