PHILADELPHIA — The teams directly ahead of the Knicks in the Eastern Conference either got worse or stood pat. The ones behind them mostly improved, as did they in landing quality wing Josh Hart from the Trail Blazers.
With that in mind, it was a mixed bag as the Knicks look to avoid the postseason’s play-in round and return to the playoffs for the second time in three seasons under coach Tom Thibodeau.
The Heat, a half-game ahead of the Knicks for the coveted sixth spot, didn’t make any moves. The Nets, three games ahead of their local rival, got worse by dealing disgruntled superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. There is now a path for the Knicks to finish fifth.
But there remains the possibility of falling, too, after the eighth-place Hawks added valuable Pistons wing Saddiq Bey. The Knicks are currently 2 ¹/₂ games up on Atlanta. The teams meet for the fourth and final time next Wednesday.
The Raptors, a disappointing four games under .500, cannot be discounted either. Toronto opted to not only keep its core together after considering breaking it up, but picked up center Jakob Poeltl from the Spurs to fill a glaring need up front.
The 30-26 Knicks still have a wide variance with 26 games remaining. It’s not crazy to think they can finish fifth or even ninth or 10th, as they were projected to prior to the season.
Wednesday night, the entire Knicks team and coaching staff was at Villanova to see Jalen Brunson have his No. 1 jersey retired at halftime of the Wildcats’ win over DePaul.
“It says a lot about Jalen, and it also says a lot about the guys on the team,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We have a really, really good group of guys, and they spend a lot of time together. I think they enjoy being around each other, and they’ve developed a very close bond.”
Injured center Mitchell Robinson is progressing in his rehab from a fractured right thumb, but he has still yet to be cleared for contact, Thibodeau said. Robinson can use his right hand in certain situations.
“He’s doing a lot on the court right now. No contact,” Thibodeau said. “So the next step will be when he gets cleared and hopefully that will be soon.”
Robinson has been out since Jan. 18.
Jericho Sims’ initial plans for the All-Star break was to take vacation. Instead, after Blazers rookie Shaedon Sharpe dropped out of the dunk contest, Sims will be part of the showcase.
The 6-foot-9 Sims said his chin can reach the rim. He has some plans in mind, including using teammates Quentin Grimes and Julius Randle as props. His last dunk contest was in high school.
“Oh, he better win it,” Thibodeau said jokingly.
Told of Thibodeau’s comment, Sims said: “I like my chances.”