The New York Knicks will look for their fifth victory in six games when they travel to play the Atlanta Hawks, the team directly behind them in the Eastern Conference, on Wednesday in the final game before the All-Star break.
The Knicks are seventh in the Eastern Conference and hold a 2½-game lead over the Hawks. But Atlanta has won two of three meetings against the Knicks this season and could secure the tiebreaker against New York with a victory. A win by New York would provide further distance from the Hawks and pull it closer to avoiding the play-in tournament.
The Knicks defeated the Brooklyn Nets 124-106 on Monday and have won seven of their last 11. The Hawks are coming off a disappointing 144-138 loss at Charlotte on Monday. Charlotte, which had lost seven straight and has only 16 wins, beat Atlanta for the third time.
In addition to the stellar play of All-Star Julius Randle (24.7 points, 10.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists), the Knicks continue to get an outstanding effort from Jalen Brunson (23.9 points, 6.2 assists). Brunson, who is not on the All-Star roster, had 40 points in the win over Brooklyn.
“The unfortunate part of the All-Star thing is that there’s not enough spots,” New York coach Tom Thibodeau. “I’m thrilled for Julius. He’s had a monster season. With Jalen, the better the team does, the more he’ll get recognized.”
Randle has totaled 66 points and 26 rebounds in the last two meetings with Atlanta.
New York’s acquisition of Josh Hart from Portland is already paying dividends. Hart, who averages 9.9 points and 8.1 rebounds, scored a season-high 27 against the Nets.
“There are few players in the league who impact winning the way Josh does,” Thibodeau said. “Those guys help you build a winning culture. He’s going to give the game whatever it needs. If it needs scoring, he’ll give you scoring. He just gives the team a lot of confidence.”
Atlanta got 12 points and five rebounds from Saddiq Bey in his debut with the team. Bey got the start when John Collins missed the game with a hip flexor injury. Bey was acquired from Detroit at the trade deadline.
“We thought we could put him with the first group and keep our second group together,” Atlanta coach Nate McMillan said. “With the first group we needed him to play defense and spread the floor. We’re trying to get him in synch with that first group.”
The Atlanta defense struggled against a Charlotte club that scored a season-high 144 points -- 32.2 above its season average -- and made 20 3-pointers.
“Our main focus has to be on the defensive end,” Atlanta’s Trae Young said. “If we’re not guarding, we’re not winning any games ... 144 points is way too much. We can score on anybody, but we’ve got to focus on defense.”
McMillan said, “We just have to come out with urgency and be really urgent on the defensive end. We’ve got to establish our defense so we can get stops and teams aren’t putting up 30-point quarters against us.”
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