Knicks Can Set Tone For Rest of Season vs. Spurs

There likely is no such thing as a must-win game for an NBA team in December, especially for a team that is sitting at .500 and squarely in the mix for the playoffs.

But Thursday night’s game comes as close to must-win for the New York Knicks as this date in the calendar permits.

[Watch Knicks-Spurs Tonight on MSG & Download Free on MSG GO]

The Knicks are, perhaps, who we thought they were. A Wednesday night loss at the Chicago Bulls was a sobering reminder that this team is still in the midst of a rebuild. If you listened to all the “experts,” the Knicks weren’t supposed to be this good in their first year after the now departed Carmelo Anthony took his talents to Oklahoma City.

Yet a stronger than expected start to the season gave Knicks fans a look at what might be some fool’s gold. That strong start and wins this past month over Anthony’s Oklahoma City Thunder and the Boston Celtics buoyed these hopes.

There was hope and belief that this team was further along than expected.

As Wednesday night proved, the Knicks aren’t quite there yet, losing on the road to a team that entered the game 10-22. Now Thursday night at the San Antonio Spurs sets them up for a game that might well dictate the rest of the year.

[Hahn: Knicks Let One Slip Away in Chicago]

The Knicks, a young team still searching for an identity, have lost three straight games. They have struggled on the road, something that is a worrisome issue as the schedule grinds along. With so much of their home slate front-loaded, the Knicks need to figure out why they struggle in their road jerseys and why this team can’t close out games against the likes of the Bulls.

Now it is gut-check time for this young team. In a game tonight against a top-tier Spurs side with a tremendous head coach, the Knicks will need to be more than just a group of talented individuals.

They will need to play like a team and play with one heart, one mind. Especially against the Spurs, who are a league-best 16-2 at home this year.

With the Knicks currently exceeding expectations, it is easy to get caught up in the hype around the team and the potential of the starting five. In this enthusiasm, it is also easy to forget that in the shadows of this surprisingly strong start to the season, this is a team that is not just young but inexperienced playing together. Against the Bulls, they gave up double-digit leads in the second and third quarters.

They failed to close out the game. They failed to hit a three-pointer in the fourth quarter. Their perimeter defense was lacking, their ball movement slow.

Kristaps Porzingis talks with Rebecca Haarlow after the Knicks-Bulls tilt in Chicago, explaining what went wrong for his club down the stretch and putting the responsibility on himself.

Those types of mistakes will be exploited on Thursday night if they don’t show up and play like they’ve played at home early on.

This game against the Spurs will be about their motivation, their very soul. Win and it is a tremendous building block, a chance to actually believe that this team can fight through adversity and can will their way to a playoff run.

[Watch Knicks-Spurs Tonight on MSG & Download Free on MSG GO]