PHOENIX — Mike Miller’s men of mystery head west to attempt to prove this blip of success is sustainable enough to make themselves relevant in 2020.
Don’t look now, but the Knicks (10-24) have crept to within five games of the eighth seed in the East with January, February, March and April ahead of them.
Armed with their first three-game win streak of the season, the Knicks get the Suns on Friday. Then the trip turns ferocious with games against both Los Angeles powerhouses before wrapping up in Utah. It is part of a 16-game January — the team’s busiest month.
Miller, who is 6-6 since taking over, has had a softer schedule than predecessor David Fizdale did, but it soon gets rough.
“It’s real big,” said Julius Randle, the former Lakers draft pick. “We want to go on the road and be special. We split the last west trip [2-2 last month]. The road brings you together. Hopefully, we can come together and keep taking steps forward.”
Across the past 12 games — since Fizdale got booted — center Mitchell Robinson is playing like a monster, Randle is living up to his $63 million paycheck as a steady No. 1 option, the defense has stabilized and the point-guard tandem of Elfrid Payton and Frank Ntilikina has played intelligently and defended.
Add the successful return of Reggie Bullock as a 3-point-shooting, rugged defensive piece off the bench, and who knows what is next for the Knicks after they routed the Blazers on New Year’s Day?
Bullock, who notched 11 points in his Knicks debut, got the game ball, and a video posted on social media showed a locker-room celebration swirling around him after the contest.
With these good vibes, Miller is looking to make a claim to become a legitimate candidate to return as full-time Knicks coach by pressing the right buttons. The sharp progress of Robinson is also a bright feather in Miller’s cap.
Robinson, who leads the NBA in field-goal percentage (70 percent), is coming off a virtuoso 11-of-11, 22-point, eight-rebound performance to continue his surge. And he’s still coming off the bench.
“I don’t really think he understands how good he is or how good he can be and his ceiling,” Carmelo Anthony said after the rout of the Blazers.
Robinson credited Morris for getting on him with vicious trash-talking after the starters beat the reserves in a Tuesday scrimmage. Robinson said he got “mad’’ and was ready to “dominate” the Blazers. Morris is taking it upon himself to stay in Robinson’s ear, as is starting center Taj Gibson.
“We kicked their ass [Tuesday],” Morris said, smiling. “I told him during the game he’s becoming a helluva player in this league. A month ago, he was a different guy. He’s fouling less and dunking everything. I’m excited to be part of his career.”
As an alley-oop machine and put-back demon, Robinson certainly will be in Chicago for All-Star Weekend next month in the Rising Stars Challenge.
He is the one player the Knicks are hesitant to include in any blockbuster trade for a star. Staying out of foul trouble is keeping him on the floor, where he can wear out defenders with his athleticism.
Robinson has only fouled out twice in his past 14 games after being ejected four times in the nine games prior.
“He makes the job really easy for us by running the floor, setting screens and making the right read at the right moment,” said Ntilikina, who notched 10 assists against the Blazers – including a handful of lobs for the 7-foot-1 2018 second-round pick gained in the Anthony trade.
“Props to him. The way he’s getting better in setting screens, rolling at the right angle, it’s a good thing.”
The point-guard situation is thriving, too, without Dennis Smith Jr., who missed his third straight game due to an oblique strain. Under Miller, the Knicks are 5-1 when Smith doesn’t play.
The coaching staff sees a heady defensive tandem in Payton-Ntilikina. Against the Blazers, the duo combined for 18 assists, four blocks and zero turnovers. Payton is questionable for the Suns game for personal reasons.
The Suns (13-21) got off to a fast start, but have since waned under rookie coach Monty Williams. It’s another winnable game for the Knicks. Of the six wins under Miller, five have come against teams with losing records (Warriors, Kings, Hawks, Wizards, Blazers). The Nets are the lone exception.
“Even when we lose we’re getting better,” Morris said. “We’re finding out identity. The bench is jelling more. It’s a long season, and we’re trending in the right direction.”
For more on the Knicks, listen to the latest episode of the “Big Apple Buckets” podcast:
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