It’s only fitting that the Knicks’ grueling January will conclude with two road contests against Eastern Conference playoff teams.
Nothing about this month has been easy. After Tuesday’s showdown at the Wizards, the Knicks will have played 17 games in 30 days, including four back-to-backs. Losses have mounted along with injuries. Amid the struggles, Carmelo Anthony trade rumors have dominated the conversation, casting doubt on his future in New York.
Yet this season is not lost. The playoffs are still a legitimate reality. Entering Sunday afternoon’s matchup with the Hawks in Atlanta, the Knicks are two games out of the eighth spot in the East despite sitting six games under .500.
They are very much in contention, which makes the Anthony saga even more interesting. The Knicks play nine games before the All-Star break. Six are against playoff teams — at the Hawks, at the Wizards, home against the Cavs, home against the Clippers, home against the Spurs and at the Thunder.
If the Knicks can inch back to .500, if they can stay within striking distance of that eighth seed, Jackson may reconsider shopping Anthony. Given his disastrous tenure as team president, Jackson is in desperate need of a playoff appearance. It would be the team’s first postseason since 2013.
Trading Anthony — especially for a subpar return — wouldn’t help the Knicks’ chance of claiming that eighth spot.
These next two weeks, it seems, will decide Anthony’s fate.
“This is that time,” Anthony said after his 8-for-26 shooting performance in Friday night’s victory. “Halfway through the season, before the break, this is the time where we can start turning it up a notch and winning some basketball games, put something together.”
Granted, Anthony still has complete control over his situation. The Knicks can’t deal Anthony unless he waives his no-trade clause.
But even though Melo has the power, the constant chatter weighs on him — as it would weigh on any player. Anthony said Friday night that the rumors are “mentally draining, mentally fatiguing.” He’s certainly pondering the idea of leaving New York, the city he loves.
The Knicks and Clippers are reportedly seeking a third a team to help facilitate a trade. The Daily News reported earlier this week that a Knicks-Clippers Anthony trade would not include any of Los Angeles’ Big 3 — Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. That’s the type of mediocre return that would cripple the Knicks’ playoff chances.
“I don’t want to see Melo go,” said Brandon Jennings. “He’s a big part of this team.”
Winning games could keep Anthony in the Big Apple. But time is running out. The players know that.
The NBA trade deadline is Feb. 23, which coincides with the Knicks’ first contest after the All-Star break.
“Everybody still believes,” Jennings said. “Nobody’s in here pointing fingers.”
Starting with a Christmas Day loss to the Celtics, the Knicks dropped 13 of 15 games. They’ve responded by going 3-3 over their past six games, but that catastrophic stint has left little — if any — room for error.
“Obviously going through that tough stretch where we lose games, it’s tough mentally, and you start thinking other things,” said Kristaps Porzingis, who missed six January games because of an Achilles injury. “Maybe we’re not ready yet.”
Even if Anthony won’t say it, the Knicks are playing to keep this team together, to show Jackson they can end this playoff drought.
“I don’t think we’re playing out there to be convincing (toward management),” Anthony said. “We understand what’s at stake right now, and that’s having an opportunity to creep back up there in one of those top eight spots. As a team, that’s what we’re playing for right now.”
The Knicks’ inconsistency is what plagued them in January. They’d show signs of improvement only to falter the very next game.
They won at the Bucks on the second night of a home-and-home on Jan. 6. The next day, they lost by double digits at the Pacers. They beat the Bulls at home on Jan. 12 only to be uncompetitive at the Raptors three days later. They miraculously defeated the Celtics in Boston on Jan. 18, and then dropped back-to-back home games to Washington and the floundering Suns.
Maybe this time, with this victory over the Hornets, the Knicks have turned the corner.
If not, Anthony’s time in New York could be coming to a close.
“This has been a terrible month for us. I give our self a D or an F, honestly,” Jennings said Friday night. “We need to build on this. We got to start getting some wins in a row.”