Consecutive losses haven’t doomed the New York Knicks’ pursuit of a top-six finish in the Eastern Conference and a guaranteed playoff spot.
But the defeats have raised the urgency level as the Knicks will look to stop their skid Thursday night when they complete a back-to-back set in Florida by visiting the Orlando Magic.
The Knicks opened their southern swing with a 127-120 loss to the Miami Heat on Wednesday night. The Magic maintained their slim hopes of qualifying for the Eastern Conference play-in tournament when they beat the host Washington Wizards 122-112 on Tuesday night.
While the Knicks (42-32) remained in fifth place in the East, the loss reduced their lead over the Brooklyn Nets (39-33) and the Heat (40-34) — who are in a virtual tie for sixth place — to two games. The seventh- through 10th-place finishers take part in the play-in tournament to determine the final two playoff teams.
“You’ve got to be mentally tough when things aren’t going our way,” Knicks point guard Jalen Brunson said. “It’s going to be loud in the playoffs. If we want to be the team that we want to be, we’ve got to be better.”
The Knicks were left to lament a subpar defensive effort Wednesday night — just as they did after Monday’s 140-134 loss to the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Heat shot 57 percent (45 of 79) from the field and 57.1 percent (16 of 28) on 3-point attempts two nights after the Timberwolves shot 61.4 percent (51 of 83) overall and 58.3 percent (14 of 24) from beyond the arc.
The Knicks, who overcame a 16-point third-quarter deficit to take a handful of leads in the fourth quarter Monday, stormed back from an 11-point third-quarter hole on Wednesday and held the lead twice in the fourth. But Max Strus’ 3-pointer with 7:05 left gave the Heat the lead for good at 101-100 and began a game-ending stretch in which Miami hit all five of its 3-point attempts.
“Just got to get our defense in order, first off,” Knicks forward Julius Randle said. “We’ve got to get our defense in order and find a way to get stops on that end.”
The Magic (30-43), who are in 13th place in the East, tightened the race for the final play-in spot Tuesday by beating the 12th-place Wizards, who fell to 32-41 with a 118-104 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night.
“That’s a team we had to beat,” Magic guard Cole Anthony said after scoring 16 points off the bench. “They’re ahead of us. But we’ll take a win any way we can get it.”
Orlando is 3-3 in its last six games after going 2-5 from Feb. 25 through March 9.
The Magic are 4 1/2 games behind 10th-place Chicago following the Bulls’ 116-91 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night, but even staying on the fringes of postseason contention could be valuable for a team whose top five scorers are all younger than 25.
“The long-term road seems so far sometimes that it’s difficult to get up in the morning if you work for something that seems to be down the road,” Magic center Moritz Wagner told the team’s website. “These short-term goals help us stay locked in on a day-to-day basis and connect (them) even more than we would do if we played for something next year.”
–Field Level Media