Knicks have plenty of positives ahead of tough second half

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The Knicks face a fierce schedule after the All-Star break with a four-game road trip starting Thursday: Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Brooklyn and Philadelphia. It’s a 1-3 trip waiting to happen.

That’s why it’s sweet Knicks fans have a week to savor their current 19-18 record. Because for the first time since the 2013-14 season, the Knicks will play meaningful games after the All-Star break.

The worst part of the seven-year playoff drought was being all but eliminated by March 1 the previous six seasons.

Here are four positive takeaways from the season’s first 37 games (one game past the mathematical midpoint of the 72-game pandemic schedule):

Stocks rise more than fall on Knicks prospects

The key to this supposed rebuilding season was the development of Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, RJ Barrett, Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina. It’s a 3-2 win — with Knox and Smith sliding away.

The Knicks couldn’t trade Smith fast enough on Super Bowl Sunday after a mediocre preseason and an early-season quad injury. They actually got good value, with the Pistons willing to accede to Derrick Rose’s trade wish to the Knicks.

Knox fell out of Tom Thibodeau’s short rotation last month and is — in the coach’s dreaded vernacular — “situational.’’ Knox has shown a knack for playing the 3 and 4, but though he has improved his 3-point shooting (38.9 percent), Thibodeau doesn’t have a lot of use for him now and is a trade candidate.

On the bull-market side of the ledger, Barrett has progressed as a more efficient scorer with both his 3-point shooting and free-throw shooting improved. He’s even stronger as a slasher.

Before Robinson broke his right hand, the center had established himself as an elite rim protector capable of staying out of foul trouble. Robinson will get his hand evaluated Wednesday, but he has made strides.

Ntilikina, meanwhile, has changed his narrative across the past 10 days. Before Feb. 25, the Frenchman hadn’t played since late December, but now he suddenly is hotter than a French bistro, and he has sunk his last six 3-pointers. At the least, the 2021 restricted free agent pumped up his trade value.

“Watching him play, work his way through things, his versatility, he can play all three positions on the perimeter,” Thibodeau said. “And his shooting has really come along.’’

The New Dr. J

Julius Randle’s transformation from free-agent bust to a bona fide All-Star is one of the NBA’s best stories. Randle has 10 games with at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. That’s the second most for a Knick in an entire season. He also has played in all 37 games — no small feat in the fragile era of the NBA. Now that a limited number of fans are attending games, he’s hearing raucous “MVP’’ chants. For real, he has risen as a strong Most Improved Player Award candidate.

Tale of Two Rookies

When the NBA general managers’ preseason survey came out, Knicks 2020 lottery pick Obi Toppin finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting. Fellow rookie Immanuel Quickley did not play in the preseason opener, then got eight minutes in the next game, looking like a late first-round pick who would have trouble finding time in a crowded backcourt. The narrative has been turned upside down, with Quickley a mainstay off Thibodeau’s bench, while. Toppin is struggling to get minutes (12.7) and gain traction behind Randle. Quickley wasn’t named to the United States’ Rising Stars roster because of the silly format of having to choose undeserving international rookies for the World Team. But he has become a fan favorite with his fearless 3-point marksmanship (38.1 percent), free-throw brilliance (making a record 94 of his first 100 free throws) and a floater that until recently was can’t-miss. His selection has taken the heat off Leon Rose’s lottery pick of Toppin, who is a project at 23.

Coaching Matters

For the first 28 games before Robinson’s hand injury, Thibodeau stuck with the same starting lineup — all five of them holdovers from last season’s shoddy club. And Thibodeau has kept the Knicks around .500 all season, remaking a culture by stressing the importance of winning. He has coached up Elfrid Payton, RJ Barrett and Randle. Thibodeau expertly managed a diverse coaching staff that was handed to him by Rose and senior VP William Wesley. The possibility of Thibodeau eventually wearing out his players by May can never be discounted, but the first 38 games have been as magical as a Turks and Caicos beach that he shuns. Larry Greer, Knicks advance scout formerly with Minnesota, tweeted Thursday, “Get asked by many coaches what is number one thing you learned working with Coach Thibodeau. It is this “Culture is how you do everything,” Thibodeau said. “It’s not any one particular thing, it’s how you do everything.” This can be applied to ANY BUSINESS!!!”

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