LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Nikola Jokic and Ja Morant. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Devin Booker and Chris Paul.
The red-hot Knicks, winners of 10 of their last 11 games, will play against some of the NBA’s brightest stars on a pivotal and daunting six-game, 10-day road trip that begins Sunday night in Houston. They will face past MVP winners, candidates to win the award this year and four of the top five seeds — the Suns, Nuggets, Lakers and Clippers — in the Western Conference.
And RJ Barrett can’t wait for it to begin.
It’s another chance for the surprising Knicks to prove themselves and fortify their standing as a top-four team in the Eastern Conference, to avoid having to sweat out the final three regular-season games at the Garden.
“We love big games. Who doesn’t want to play against the best of the best?” Barrett, the burgeoning second-year star, said Saturday after practice. “It’s kind of what I grew up wanting to do. It’s going to be a great challenge for us. Just excited to get going.”
Facing this kind of competition is difficult enough, but doing so on the road will be even more of a test. The Knicks are 13-17 on the road and own just four victories in 12 opportunities over teams with winning records away from the Garden. They have gotten fat at home, where Tom Thibodeau’s team has won 14 of its last 18 games, to take over the fourth spot in the East, 1 ¹/₂ games up on Hawks and Celtics entering Saturday.
The most important game of the trip is arguably the first one. The Rockets are 16-47, the lone team with a losing record the Knicks will face in this upcoming stretch. In fact, Houston is the lone non-playoff contender left on the Knicks’ schedule.
“We got to go out there and get one at a time,” Barrett said. “[Sunday] is definitely going to be a huge game.”
But the Rockets aren’t a pushover. They have played better of late, going 2-2 in their last four games. Of their previous five defeats, three were by single digits. And they feature dynamic young Kevin Porter Jr., who became the youngest player in NBA history to post a double-double of 50 points and 10 assists when he led the Rockets to an upset of the Bucks on Thursday. Since joining Houston following the G-League season, the 20-year-old former USC star is averaging 16.7 points and 6.4 assists while shooting 42.7 percent from the field.
Most important to the old-school Thibodeau, the Rockets are the next game. He abhors looking ahead. That’s what has made the Knicks successful this year” focusing on the moment and not worrying about what comes next.
“What we’re doing is just thinking about Houston, and that’s really what we’ve done well all season long,” Thibodeau said. “We’ve had different stretches of the season where you have a bunch of games like [this]. I think the important thing is to have a routine of how you prepare for each game, and don’t get away from it.
“Just know your opponent really well and get ready for that game. Don’t worry about the game after or game after that. … Just focus on exactly what’s in front of us, and hopefully we’re building those habits. We know how dangerous Houston is. They put a lot of points up on the board. We have to be ready to go.”
The Knicks are well aware of how critical this trip is and how challenging these games will be. This six-game stretch can set them up to finish in the top half of the Eastern Conference and avoid the play-in round, or it can set them back and at least partially erase all the positive momentum they have created.
It could define their season.
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