It’s understandable for observers to divide the NBA season into two easily distinguishable halves — before the All-Star break and after it.
But the New York Knicks and New Orleans Pelicans — both in the thick of jumbled races in their conferences — know the urgency required for the post-All-Star break stretch, which leaves everyone much closer to the finish line than the starting line.
The Knicks and Pelicans will look to improve their playoff positioning Saturday night, when New York will host New Orleans in the first game of the season between the teams.
The Knicks will be completing a back-to-back set after they returned from the break on Friday and overcame a 19-point, first-half deficit to edge the host Washington Wizards 115-109.
The Pelicans resumed play and continued a four-game road trip on Thursday, when they fell to the Toronto Raptors 115-110.
New York notched its fourth straight win and ninth in the past 13 games.
The Knicks trailed the Wizards 57-38 just beyond the midway point of the second quarter before Julius Randle scored 16 points in a 30-7 run that bridged the halves.
The fourth quarter featured six lead changes and three ties before Jalen Brunson hit a layup with 42.1 seconds left to begin a game-ending 6-0 run for the Knicks.
New York was the only team among the quartet of teams jumbled between fourth and seventh place in the East to win on Friday.
The Knicks are in sixth place — the last guaranteed playoff spot — and they inched within a game of the fifth-place Brooklyn Nets and within three games of the fourth-place Cleveland Cavaliers while moving 1 1/2 games ahead of the seventh-place Miami Heat.
“We would always say ‘the halfway point,’ ” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said, referring to the All-Star break. “Well, it’s not the halfway point. It’s three-quarters of the way through the season. I think you can sense the urgency in the players. They know what’s at stake and every game is important.”
Pelicans coach Willie Green appeared to act with the calendar in mind on Thursday, when he benched Trey Murphy III — who started 46 of the first 59 games this season — in favor of Josh Richardson in the latter’s third game since he was acquired from the San Antonio Spurs on Feb. 9.
The move didn’t pay immediate dividends for New Orleans. While Richardson (11 points, three steals) was solid in 28 minutes, the Pelicans trailed for the final 38-plus minutes Thursday, though they whittled a 15-point, fourth-quarter deficit to two points in the final minute.
“Once we got stops, rebounded the ball and started to play downhill with force, the game changed for us,” Green said of the Pelicans, who shot 53.2 percent in the second half after shooting 37.8 percent in the first half. “We have to play like that — not just the last couple quarters, but try to put that together for 48 minutes.”
The loss further muddied the playoff picture for the Pelicans, who are in a three-way tie for seventh place in the Western Conference with the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Golden State Warriors following wins by the latter two on Friday night. The trio are 1 1/2 games behind the sixth-place Dallas Mavericks and two games behind the fifth-place Los Angeles Clippers.
–Field Level Media