The Knicks’ Christmas Day game versus the Boston Celtics at Madison Square Garden served as test for a team that needs to take the next step in their evolution as a potential contender in the Eastern Conference—contender being a relative term.

It is unrealistic, or even delusional, for anyone to consider that the Knicks can pose even a minimal threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ supremacy in the Eastern Conference. Putting aside the unrealistic, they do possess the necessities to battle the Celtics, the Toronto Raptors and the Charlotte Hornets. Those teams, in addition to the Cavaliers, were ahead of the Knicks in the Eastern Conference standings as of the start of last night’s NBA schedule.

The Knicks were 16-14, fifth overall in the conference, when they faced the Atlanta Hawks last night (Wednesday) on the road. They will play two more games away from MSG—tomorrow against the New Orleans Pelicans and Saturday versus the Houston Rockets—before returning home to host the Orlando Magic on Monday night.

If the Knicks were to be given a grade for their 119-114 loss to the Celtics last Sunday, it would be a C. There were both positive and negative aspects of the defeat. The positives are the manner in which the Knicks competed, coming back from a late fourth-quarter deficit and putting themselves in position to gain another win at home, where they have been strong thus far, with a record of 11-5. The negatives are they had too many defensive lapses and failed to string together stops throughout the course of the game, and that led to them having to climb out of a 13-point hole (109-96) with a little under five minutes remaining in the final quarter.

“We just couldn’t finish it at the end, but it’s not only the end part,” said Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis afterward. “It’s throughout the whole game that we can be better.”

The Knicks can and must be better. With more than a third of the season behind them, their head coach, Jeff Hornacek, has proved himself to be a capable leader who has his finger on the pulse of the team. He has maneuvered them into a favorable position in the standings, yet there is still much room for improvement.

Lingering slightly above .500 may get the Knicks into the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference if that’s where they remain for the duration of this season. But the eye test says they ultimately can be at least six games on the plus side of the even mark.