Knicks starting center Mitchell Robinson (302199)
Credit: Bill Moore photo

This season, Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau has frequently articulated his coaching philosophy, which is fundamentally the next game is the most important. He is decidedly cognizant that staying in moment, pouring over every minor detail, and taking nothing for granted, is critical to consistent progress, particularly for a team that is still shaping its identity.

Thibodeau’s micro approach has the Knicks in an unfamiliar position as they close out the first half of their schedule tonight at Madison Square Garden against the Detroit Pistons. They are 18-18 and have an opportunity to go into the All-Star break––beginning tomorrow––above .500, an impressive achievement given their futility over the better part of the past two decades. The Knicks haven’t finished a season with a winning record since the 2012-13 campaign, when they 54-28.

“I think it’s important to know the history of the organization,” said Thibodeau on Sunday following the Knicks’ 109-90 victory over the Pistons on the road. “But our focus has to be exactly on what’s in front of us and that’s each day, each game and each practice. Just keep trying to improve. And we have a young team. We have a team that can grow.”

Possibilities for the Knicks have naturally been heightened, internally even more than externally. While fans are optimistic the Knicks have the capability to end the regular season in mid-May in one of the top 10 spots in the Eastern Conference, which would put them at the very least in the play-in round of the postseason, the coaching staff and players view their potential by how competitive they are game to game.

“The reaction to the winning record, honestly, in our locker room it’s expected,” said Julius Randle on Sunday. The Knicks’ 26-year-old forward will be playing in his first All-Star game in a seven-year NBA career when the showcase is held this Sunday in Atlanta. He enters tonight’s match up averaging 23.1 points, 10.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, all which leads the Knicks.

“I said all year, we feel like every time we go out, we have a chance to win the game,” Randle confidently asserted. It is the reason why Thibodeau was demonstrably disappointed by the Knicks’ lackluster showing against the San Antonio Spurs on the road on Tuesday night. After trailing by only 51-47 at halftime, the Knicks were thoroughly outplayed in the second half in losing 119-93.

“You get what you deserve,” said Thibodeau afterward. The Knicks were without point guards Elfrid Payton, who may return tonight after missing his fourth straight game recovering from a sore right hamstring and Derrick Rose, who was ruled out right before tipoff as a result of COVID-19 protocols.

Center Taj Gibson was also unavailable after spraining his left ankle versus the Indiana Pacers on Saturday, as was starting center Mitchell Robinson, who fractured his right hand against the Washington Wizards on Feb. 12 and subsequently underwent surgery. Nevertheless, the Spurs were missing Derrick White, LeMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay, three of their key rotation players.

The Knicks will face a gauntlet right out of the gate when they return from the All-Star break. They will see the Milwaukee Bucks (next Tuesday), Oklahoma City Thunder (next Saturday), Brooklyn Nets (March 15) and Philadelphia 76ers (March 16) all on the road. The stretch will be a measure of the Knicks’ collective talent and mental fortitude.