NEW YORK — As New York Knicks head coach Derek Fisher noted, following his club’s latest defeat, the NBA’s Eastern Conference has a logjam of teams fighting to stay in contention for the postseason a little more than one-third of the way into the season.
“Between two and 11, there’s 3½ games difference,” he said, as New York moved a game under the .500 mark, at 14-15, following a frustrating home loss to the Orlando Magic (16-12) in which the Knicks often closed to within a possession or two — and never trailed by double digits until there was a little over a minute left — yet also never led (mostly because they couldn’t get defensive stops), before finally succumbing to the Magic, 107-99, at Madison Square Garden on Monday night.
Tied with identical season records, Orlando and Detroit hold the final two playoff positions for now, with New York (occupying the 11th spot, mentioned by Fisher), 2½ games back, yet only one additional game behind Miami (16-10), which sits in the two spot.
While Fisher, looking at the tight standings, certainly has reason to be optimistic about competing for the playoffs, the focus in late December is more about individual and collective player growth than wins and losses (i.e. even in a far more competitive Eastern Conference this season than in recent years, New York should be able to pile up enough wins to be in the playoff mix in April, as long as Fisher and star forward Carmelo Anthony can continue to help the Knicks’ promising young group of players continue to make progress and develop).
On that front, fifth-year forward, 27-year-old, former Duke University star Lance Thomas, who had been showing good signs of late, had his best performance yet.
Scoring in double figures for a sixth straight game, during which he has shot a sizzling 70 percent (28-for-40), including 76.9 percent (10-for-13) from 3-point range, Thomas broke out like never before.
Not only were Thomas’ 24 points against Orlando a team-best (surpassing the 23 scored by Anthony on solid 10-of-17 shooting) and a career-tying high, but Thomas was a perfect 9-for-9 from the floor, falling just two made field goals shy of makes without a miss (Bernard King, against Chicago, in 1984, and Johnny Newman, at Boston, in 1988 each finished 11-for-11, respectively).
After playing just eight minutes in the opening half and not taking a shot in five second-quarter minutes, Thomas scored 12 of New York’s 27 points in the third quarter, on 5-of-5 shooting before adding 10 of the Knicks’ 26 points in the fourth quarter, while going 3-for-3, to help keep the Knicks in the game until the final two minutes.
Showing great energy, Thomas scored in a myriad of ways, making a trio of 3-pointers and mid-range jumpers from various spots on the floor, and aggressively driving down the lane.
Perhaps most importantly, Thomas had the right attitude, afterwards, even moments after the best game he’s ever played in the NBA.
“From a competitor’s standpoint, it sucks to lose like that (staying close, but falling short).” he said. “I shot the ball well, but we lost. There’s no moral victories. I hate losing.”
Fisher said it’s Thomas work ethic which has propelled him the most.
“I think his confidence is there because he’s put the work in,” Fisher said of Thomas. “That’s the only way that you can play with confidence, is to know that you’ve put the time in and invested the effort that it takes to improve. I think that’s a big factor in why he’s playing so well for us.”
Answering those remarks, Thomas said, “I’m going to continue to have the same effort. I’m not going to change up what I’m doing and I’m going to keep playing hard for my teammates.”
Those sentiments went right along with what guard Langston Galloway (whose own hard work and professionalism forced the Knicks to keep him last year after calling him up from the NBA Developmental League) said about on overall seismic shift in the team’s mindset and culture from last season’s 17-win team to this year.
“All the credit to [Thomas],” Galloway who said, “He put in a lot of work over the summer and especially throughout the season. It’s paying off right now.”
Expanding on Thomas’ dedication as just one of several examples of a better overall team approach this season, Galloway added, “This team is definitely more mature and [has] better professionals when it comes to taking care of [our bodies], and just doing the little things that [we] have to do every day to help the team compete.”
Newcomer, guard Arron Afflalo, who with a tough 2-for-8 night, ended his own recent hot streak, said of Thomas, “I’m happy for him. Obviously, he’s a great defender for us, but when he can take advantage of his offensive opportunities, whether it be from 3 or penetration, or however they come, it’s going to always be a plus for us.”
Rookie of the Year candidate, fourth overall pick, forward Kristaps Porzingis chimed in, saying, “That helps everybody if [Thomas] can stretch the floor and be aggressive… it makes all of us look better. So we want him to play this way and just make us better as a team.”
Consistent with what Galloway mentioned about the change in the team’s collective maturity relative to last year, the 20-year-old Porzingis, was uncharacterstically benched down the stretch due in part to Thomas’ hot hand, said, “I always want to be on the floor, but that’s the decision that Coach made… as long as we’re playing good basketball, it doesn’t matter who’s on the floor, as long as we can win games. That’s the most important thing.”
Porzingis also sat late because of Fisher’s decision to go with the stronger Lopez defensively, although he struggled to stop Orlando center Nikola Vucevic, who led all scorers with 26 points, on 13-of-19 shooting.
Yet like Porzingis, Lopez put the team first, while avoiding any griping about not getting more scoring opportunities, even though he finished a perfect 6-for-6 after starting the game with eight points on 4-of-4 shooting within the game’s first nine minutes.
It’s debatable as to whether Porzingis might have done more than Lopez was able to in order to slow down Vucevic as New York remained within striking distance down the stretch.
But one certainty was that Thomas forced Fisher to leave him in during that time, even to the extent that Anthony, who sprained his ankle late in the third quarter, looked for Thomas to lead the Knicks offensively in the final period.
“He had it going,” Anthony said of Thomas, adding of Thomas’ overall play over the past six games, “It gives us a chance to have another guy out there who can space the court. When we penetrate, we’re finding him and he’s doing a great job of knocking down his shots and being in the right spots at the right time. We’re finding him, we’re looking for him. We believe that he can knock those shots down. He’s proven that to us.”
And if Thomas continues to do so, it’ll be one more key rotation piece that team president Phil Jackson will have at his disposal in trying to advance the Knicks’ rebuild both in the short term and perhaps for much longer.