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Zion Williamson’s first game at the Garden in a Sunday matinee figured to be the headliner on the marquee — with point guard Lonzo Ball’s audition for the Knicks a close second.
Instead, Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks, hottest team in the NBA and winners of five straight, conquerors of Williamson and Luka Doncic in this week’s New Orleans-Dallas road sweep, are the Garden’s stars.
Williamson and Ball, the emerging young point guard who is expected to be a Knicks free-agent target, are sidebars.
The Knicks are indeed conquering heroes as they return to the Garden for a six-game homestand. They’re a season-high three games over .500 at 30-27, in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and half a game behind Boston entering play Saturday.
With 15 games left in the regular season, Thibodeau has the Knicks all but assured of playing postseason games and looking like strong candidates to avoid the dreaded play-in tournament by finishing sixth or better.
It has become a running joke now on Zoom calls to ask the curmudgeonly Coach of the Year candidate if he’s finally happy and of course his answer is not yet, not even after posting the Knicks’ longest winning streak in seven seasons.
Getting complacent in a pandemic season in which anything is possible would be the wrong move.
“Am I happy? You know I’m never happy,’’ Thibodeau said with a grin. “We try not to get wrapped up in any of that stuff. You don’t want to get lost and that’s the most important thing — to understand what goes into winning. If we’re taking care of all the little things, the big things will take care of themselves. Just stack good days. I think that we have a belief that we can win. That’s probably the most important thing, and it started that way in the beginning. And it doesn’t really matter what outside people think, it’s what we think.’’
The Knicks’ fifth straight win was secure by only minutes late Friday night in Dallas when Thibodeau was already thinking about Sunday’s rematch with the Pelicans at the Garden as having a new wrinkle.
When asked about facing the Pelicans again in a Sunday matinee, Thibodeau missed nothing.
“I think Lonzo [Ball] played [Friday night] so that will make them different,’’ Thibodeau said. “So we’re going to have to be ready for that, and it’s a quick turnaround. It’s an early start and we got to be ready to go so we know the challenges that we’ll face. And when you’re going against a guy like Zion, in many ways it’s similar to Doncic in the sense that it requires more than one. And you can’t give him any gaps.”
Ball missed Wednesday’s game in New Orleans with a sore hip flexor and the Knicks triumphed, 116-106. Williamson scored 26 points, but was shut down with a wall of defenders in the fourth quarter as owner James Dolan watched gleefully from a baseline seat by the Knicks’ bench in the Big Easy.
Ball, who had missed four games, is back, but looked rusty in the Pelicans’ loss at Washington on Friday, scoring four points with three assists and shooting 2 of 10.
It has always been about the future for the Knicks during seven straight non-playoff seasons, but now their fans can savor the present and not fret whether Ball will become their point-guard-of-the-future this August. (He has the Knicks on his radar.)
The Knicks have transformed their image from bumbling laughingstocks who played no defense the previous seven seasons to rugged stalwarts nobody wants to face in the first playoff round. They’ve gone from a place to avoid to a potential destination for someone like Ball — and perhaps Williamson when he’s a restricted free agent in 2023.
“We’re very confident, playing well as a unit,’’ said RJ Barrett, who will look to avenge his dud showing in New Orleans against his buddy Williamson. “Got to keep that up.”
Julius Randle is playing like a left-handed version of LeBron James, a triple-double threat every night, averaging 36.7 points in the past three wins. The Knicks’ defense is as physical as ever, holding teams to a league-stingiest 104.3 points per game. The Knicks are peaking at the right time.
And even if bench scorer Alec Burks (COVID-19 protocols) is out indefinitely, the Knicks have six straight games at the Garden, where they are 18-10.
“Whether it’s a long homestand or long road trip, it’s all the same,’’ Thibodeau said. “Each game counts the same. Don’t skip any steps, and come up with that edge.’’
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