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This was the one they needed. The others aren’t house money; there is no such thing any more. But the Knicks needed to start this consequential six-game road swing west precisely as they started it Sunday night. The Houston Rockets are awful, and their supply of active players is thin, and they are playing out the string.
The Rockets needed to be pounded.
The Knicks pounded the Rockets. They clubbed them 122-97, and even managed to give Julius Randle the whole fourth quarter off, which was a fine way to keep him somewhat fresh for the second leg of the journey, Monday, in Memphis.
Now the fun can really start.
Now, in fact, the Knicks can think about getting greedy.
The Celtics lost to the Blazers Sunday; they’re now three games behind the Knicks in the loss column. The Heat beat the Hornets; they’re two games back in the loss column, same as Atlanta. So now the Knicks can cross one game off the calendar, they can turn to Memphis, and to Denver beyond that, and Phoenix, and L.A.
And start thinking about something else.
Most Knicks fans these past few days, idling as they waited for the team to play again, agreed they’d sign up for a 2-4 trip. You take care of business in Houston, then see what happens from there. They’ve already beaten Memphis, the game that launched their nine-game win streak that is now 11 wins in 12 games. You never know when a star — a Nikola Jokic, a Kawhi Leonard, an Anthony Davis — will sit unexpectedly.
And not incidentally: the Knicks have proven they are good enough to hang with all of the teams on this trip for 48 minutes. But in order to be realistic about the broader ambitions of the trip the Knicks needed to take care of business at Toyota Center in Houston.
The Knicks took care of business. Randle had 31 points in 30 minutes. RJ Barrett filled up the box score: 21 points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals. Derrick Rose was plus-35 for his 31 minutes on the court, Taj Gibson plus-36 for his 32. It was a nice breather, even if the coach wasn’t about to use such labels.
“I never felt like it was a laugher for us,” Tom Thibodeau said. “You need to play for 48 minutes. You mess around with a team like that, they start making 3s on you, they can make up some ground.”
The Rockets had, in fact, stunned the Bucks a few nights back, helped by the absence of Giannis Antetokounmpo. They have nothing to lose, can play loose, can be free and easy, and they did jump out to an early five-point lead.
But the Knicks are playing too well right now, are riding too powerful a wave. They haven’t lost a trap game in weeks. They understand what awaits them on this trip. They are a team focused on the business at hand right now.
“We’re fighting for something,” Rose said. “We know that down the stretch we want to be playing our best basketball, giving our best effort and playing with urgency. It’s all about picking the other person up. We need to know it’s going to be a grinding game.”
The next five are going to be that way for sure. The next five are the ones Knicks fans have been pointing to for weeks, for months, ever since it became apparent that those games were actually going to matter for the Knicks. Maybe it felt like a happy accident at first, the way this whole season felt for the first 45 games or so.
But there is nothing accidental about where the Knicks are now: 36-28, already clinching a .500 record on the year, already clinching a spot in the postseason tournament. Five months and a day earlier, when the Knicks first congregated for the season on the first of December, such goals would have seemed laughable, if not downright delusional.
Five months and a day later, on the second of May, they felt like a prelude to something bigger, something better. In a few weeks that will mean some variety of postseason games. Starting now it means a Memphis/Denver/Phoenix/Los Angeles gauntlet that might well determine how long that second season lasts.
“We’re taking it as a challenge,” Rose said. “We know everybody is playing for something. Every team, every game is going to be a rough game, like a playoff game.”
Starting Monday night at Memphis’ FedExForum, for as long as the ride lasts, they will all feel like playoff games. And then be playoff games. Now the fun can really start.