Obi Toppin Credit: Bill Moore photo

The Knicks reached the halfway point of their regular season schedule on Tuesday night with a 111-96 win over the San Antonio Spurs at Madison Square Garden. They were 20-21 when the 22-18 Dallas Mavericks visited the Garden last night, sitting 11th in the tightly contested Eastern Conference standings. The Mavericks were without former Knick All-Star Kristaps Porzingis, who was in COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

Comparatively, the Knicks, one game under .500 before facing the Mavericks, were 18-17 after 35 games a season ago with a similar winning percentage of .514 when the league held an abridged 71-game regular season. The stark difference is they were fourth in the conference at that time and went on to finish as the No. 4 seed with a record of 41-31.

The landscape has changed as teams such as the Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers, who ended last season 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th respectively in the East, are much improved. The Bulls led the conference at 27-11 prior to hosting the Nets last night, the Cavaliers (23-18) were 6th, the Hornets 7th (22-19) and the Raptors 8th (20-18). All of them have the necessities and staying power to be contenders for one of the 10 post-regular season spots with the 7 through 10 seeds designated for the Play-In Tournament.

So, unlike the charmed run the Knicks experienced in the second half of their schedule last season when they went 23-13, their remaining 40 games over the next three months will undoubtedly be an intense and hard-fought grind. They have labored to develop productive and sustained consistency that is reflected in their 10-11 home record heading into the matchup with the Mavericks. COVID-19 and injuries have affected them as they have all 30 NBA teams.

“Look, there’s going to be ups and downs throughout the course of the year,” said Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau after Saturday’s 99-75 loss to the Boston Celtics on the road. “You’ve got to be mentally tough when you face adversity—everybody does. Probably the most important thing in life. Sometimes it goes our way, sometimes it doesn’t. Just navigate through it all.”

Thibodeau has moved players in and out of the lineup trying to achieve offensive-defensive equilibrium. The result has been players, notably second-year forward Obi Toppin, still trying to solidify their roles in the rotation. Toppin went into the Mavericks game seeing his minutes reduced in recent weeks. For the season, he was 11th on the team in average minutes played per game at 16.3. Toppin’s stat line was 8 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.

The Knicks will be in Atlanta on Saturday to face the Hawks, then return to the Garden for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day game on Monday, and will be back on the court at MSG on Tuesday versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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