Can the Knicks Buck the Trend?

It was just days before Christmas 1997 and the Knicks were coming off a brutal loss in Cleveland and in Milwaukee for the second game of a back-to-back. They were 15-10 at the time, but maintained lofty expectations as perennial championship contenders.

It was in the final seconds of the first half in a game that was already getting away from the Knicks when Patrick Ewing reached for an alley-oop pass from Charlie Ward. Bucks center Andrew Lang nudged Ewing from behind and The Franchise fell awkwardly and smashed his right wrist — and championship hopes for another year — to smithereens.

Though Ewing remained with the team until 2000, and came back to play more big games, that was his last game as the cornerstone of the franchise. The Ewing Era ended on the floor of the Bradley Center.

Almost 15 years later, the Knicks are in Milwaukee looking to avoid another pivotal and, potentially, devastating loss in the Brew City.

“We have no choice,” Carmelo Anthony said, “but to be ready for that game.”

Recent history is not on their side. The Knicks have lost five straight games at the Bradley Center since a 120-112 win on March 10, 2009 that saw Larry Hughes score 39 points and Nate Robinson put up 32 off the bench.

Overall, the Knicks have lost nine of the last 11 games against Milwaukee.

These two teams have been on a tear over the past month. The Knicks are 11-4 since Mike Woodson replaced Mike D’Antoni as head coach. But the Bucks have rallied to stay right on the heels of the Knicks in the playoff race by winning 13 of their last 18 games. It all started with a 119-114 win over the Knicks in Milwaukee on March 9.

The Knicks won the teams’ previous meeting, 89-80, at the Garden on March 26. Bucks guard Brandon Jennings, who had 15 points on 6 of 22 shooting, dismissed it as a bad shooting night. He wasn’t about to credit the Knicks defense.

And after a blowout loss to the indomitable Oklahoma City Thunder, which saw Milwaukee fall behind early, Jennings pointed to the team’s next game, against the Knicks, and said, “For sure, Wednesday, that’s not going to happen.”

Not quite Danny Granger’s “winnable games” remark that was nailed to the bulletin board, but Jennings got the talking started early.

The Knicks, coming off a frustrating night, as well, after Tuesday’s 98-86 loss in Chicago, can only focus internally right now. Both Melo and Tyson Chandler, the only two players who spoke to the media after the game, agreed this matchup with the Bucks is “a must-win.”

“We have to approach it like it’s a Game 7 in the playoffs,” Chandler said.

“It’s probably one of the biggest games of the season for us,” Anthony said. “We’ve got to approach it like that.”

Here’s why:

• A Knicks win would not only open a two-game lead over the Bucks with eight games to play, it would even the season series at 2-2 and move a tiebreaker against the Bucks to whomever has the better Eastern Conference record. A win would give the Knicks a 23-18 conference record, compared to a 21-19 conference record for Milwaukee. The Knicks have seven more Eastern Conference games left on the schedule, while the Bucks have eight. A win would also move the Knicks within a half-game of the 76ers for the seventh spot.

• A Bucks win would put the teams in a record tie (29-29), but give the Bucks sole ownership of the eighth spot — the final playoff berth in the East — because they would also clinch the season series at 3 games to 1. The Knicks would also fall 1 1/2 games behind the Philadelphia 76ers for seventh.

What remains:

• The Bucks and 76ers face each other in Milwaukee in the second-to-last game of the regular season. That favors the Knicks as long as they stay within reach of Philadelphia because they could benefit no matter who wins and loses.

• After playing the Bucks, the Knicks have eight games remaining, with four against playoff-bound teams: Heat, Celtics, at Hawks and Clippers. But three of their final five games come against lottery bound teams: at Nets, at Cavs and the season finale, at Bobcats.

• After playing the Knicks, the Bucks have eight games remaining, with four against playoff-bound teams: Pacers, at Pacers, 76ers and at Celtics. The Knicks have the tougher opponents, but the Bucks opponents are each playing for seedings. The question is, if Boston already has the Atlantic Division wrapped up in that season finale, do they rest their main players?

If the Knicks win tonight, most of this will probably not matter.

“At this point, we have to understand what’s at stake,” Chandler said, “because ultimately we hold our own future in our own hands.”

FIXINS

• Painful when the Novakaine wears off, isn’t it? Steve Novak went 0-for-3 from three-point range on Tuesday night and was 0-for-7 from downtown in the home-and-home with the Bulls. It was the first time this season he has gone consecutive games without making at least one three-pointer. The Bulls played him well and gave him very few open looks. See if he can end his drought on the hometown rims in Milwaukee.

• Mobb Deep came up small on Tuesday, with just 18 points by the bench compared to Chicago’s 33 bench points. J.R. Smith had 14 points, Novak hit two free throws and Bill Walker had a meaningless layup in the final seconds. Need much more than that against Milwaukee, which doesn’t have a great bench, but does have Knick-killer Mike Dunleavy.

• Baron Davis had a good start in Chicago and seemed like he was in a nice rhythm, but his passing got erratic and you could see he was frustrating Woodson with his decisions on offense. He dove for the ball in the fourth quarter and came up showing some discomfort. Considering his back issues, it’s something to monitor in the second game within a 20-hour span against a speedy, relentless Bucks backcourt.

• After facing the NBA’s best offensive rebounding team — the Bulls, No. 1 at 14 a game, had 18 on Tuesday — the Knicks go up against a Bucks team that ranks No. 5, with 12.5 per game. The fundamentals are simple: box out. Player they most have to lock down: Ersan Ilyasova.

• Key matchup to watch: Iman Shumpert vs. Brandon Jennings. This is one where you wish both players were mic’d up, just to hear the trash talk.

• Remember: We’ll have wall-to-wall coverage starting with Knicks Game Night, which starts at 7:30 p.m. on MSG Networks. Tip-off is at 8 p.m. and don’t forget the Knicks PostGame Show afterward!