Have the Knicks and Nets ever played an important game? There are only three I’d even call memorable. The first I didn’t even see: April Fool’s Day, 1987, when all I knew of the Knicks came from reading boxscores in Newsday. The Knicks and Nets were neck-and-neck for the second-worst record in the league. I knew the Knicks weren’t making the playoffs, so I set my heart on them finishing ahead of Nets. Despite a career-high 34 from Trent Tucker, New Jersey won in the final seconds thanks to Buck Williams tipping in a Mike Gminski miss.
Six years later the Knicks were a title contender and the Nets an up-and-coming Eastern power when the two met in March for a Sunday national broadcast best remembered for John Starks breaking Kenny Anderson’s wrist.
It was a season-ending injury on two levels: Anderson didn’t play again that season, and the Nets collapsed late without him, dropping 10 of their final 11 games and falling from a likely 4-seed to sixth. Instead of having homecourt against a Charlotte team in their weight class, they opened on the road in Cleveland, where the 54-win Cavaliers tied for the second-best home mark in the league (the Knicks were first, these being ye olden days, back before players cared about putting on a show at MSG; Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller weren’t even born yet). The Cavs won the series finale at home.
The last memorable match between the two came in December of 2012, when both were good for once. Do you remember Carmelo Anthony scoring 45 or the win sending the Nets to their fifth straight loss? Jason Kidd hitting the game-winning three while drawing the foul with Miller’s old move may seem familiar.
Tonight the Knicks face the most important game they’ve ever played against the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets. With Kevin Durant now in Phoenix and Kyrie Irving in a state that restricts bodily autonomy far more than NYC ever did — fancy a boycott, Kai? — the Knicks have the chance to pass the Nets in the standings and earn an automatic playoff spot, avoiding the play-in tournament. That won’t be easy: Brooklyn got four good players back in the trades in Mikal Bridges, Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith and Cam Johnson. Dinwiddie is a Knick-killer who does it for fun, while Johnson has broken blue and orange hearts before.
Seth Curry will be out due to an adductor strain. Other than he and Mitchell Robinson, both teams should otherwise have their full complement. That means more Josh Hart for the Knicks, which could mean less Deuce McBride and Quentin Grimes. Whatever it takes, the Knicks need this one. Here’s why.
A win puts them two games behind the Nets with 23 games left (25 for the Nets). The Nets won their first two meetings, so if Brooklyn wins either of the last two games between them they win the tiebreaker. The next tiebreaker is division record, a Knicks bugaboo for a decade; however, should the Knicks win their two games with the Nets, that would tie their division records, depending how they fare in their two remaining division games (the Knicks have two against the Celtics, the Nets play the Celtics and the 76ers once each).
If the Knicks win tonight and the Nets are around .500 the rest of the year, say 13-12, the Knicks would have to finish 14-9 or better to have a shot at passing them, which is not easy but not impossible. If the Nets win tonight and go 13-12 the rest of the way, the Knicks would have to go 17-6 or better. It’s possible: they did run off a 15-6 stretch earlier this season.
After tonight the Nets have 25 games left, 13 at home and 12 away. 11 are against top-six teams, five are against play-ins and eight come against bottom-five squads. They have four back-to-backs remaining; the first B2B has the Knicks as the second-leg, the other three come against bottom-fivers. Brooklyn has two games each left against Milwaukee, Denver, Cleveland and Miami.
After tonight the Knicks have 23 games left, 10 at home and 13 away. 10 are against top-six teams, six are against play-ins and seven against bottom-five clubs. They have three back-to-backs remaining, with one second-leg against a play-in team and the other two against bottom-5s. New York has three games left with Miami and two against Boston.
All of this is to say it’d be great if the Knicks won tonight. Not only would that make it three in a row at home for the first time in two months, it’d set them up for a competitive shot at a competitive postseason and a better feeling about the year they’ll have had. If they finish sixth through eighth, there’s a chance they’ll face a team with an MVP-caliber player that sweeps ‘em and leave a bitter taste in their mouth. If they finish fifth and lose in six competitive games to Cleveland, who have so many very good players but no MVPs, it could lead them into a more positive offseason, and therefore less likely to feel the need to take a big risk, especially if that risk is shipping Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes in a deal for Zach LaVine. Allllll that riding on one game. No pressure!