Marcus Morris, Spencer Dinwiddie, Kyrie Irving, Elfrid Payton
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets meet for the last time this season; both teams have an opportunity to gain some traction.

Danny Small

TARRYTOWN, NY—The NBA schedule makers frontloaded all four games between the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets. Thus, the final installment of the season series is taking place on Sunday evening and it couldn’t come at a better time for either team.

The Knicks, on one hand, are playing solid basketball of late, but it’s not resulting in wins. Close losses to the Los Angeles Lakers and Toronto Raptors highlighted the next area the team needs to improve in: closing out games.

“It really is a series of plays,” interim head coach Mike Miller told a small group of reporters at practice on Saturday. “It’s a play here, a play there, and it’s not necessarily the last play. It’s plays that may change where we’re at on that last play. Instead of being down two, maybe we’re up five because we made more plays early in the game.”

New York is showing signs of improvement, but they haven’t reached a point where they can win consistently. For the season, the Knicks rank 28th in offensive rating (104.6) and 24th in defensive rating (112.5) per NBA.com. After making the change from David Fizdale to Miller, those numbers have improved ever so slightly, but not enough to climb out of the basement in the Eastern Conference standings.

The scuffling Nets provide an opportunity for the Knicks to start figuring out how to close games. After all, the Nets have lost 12 of their last 15 games and are playing the second leg of a back-to-back. Brooklyn managed to hold off a severely shorthanded Pistons squad in overtime on Saturday.

Although it’s clear that New York will have some kind of advantage over a tired Nets squad, the Knicks don’t want to take their crosstown rivals lightly. Still, there is a strong belief in the locker room that they can win the game.

“We believe we can win that game,” Morris said after Friday’s loss to the Raptors. “They’ve been struggling, we’ve been struggling. … There’s going to be a lot of excitement and I’m looking forward to that game and for the crowd to be hyped. It’s going to be a dogfight.”

“Just like every other team in the East in the lower bracket, a lot of teams are really struggling,” Taj Gibson said after practice. “There are a lot of teams that are really trying to get over the hump, but still, everybody is a talented NBA player.”

On the other hand, the Nets are trying to re-establish themselves in the Eastern Conference as a no-doubt playoff team. Right now, Brooklyn holds the eighth seed, but their pedestrian record of 19-25 falls way below preseason expectations.

Surprisingly enough, the Nets are a much better team on defense than offense this season. Brooklyn ranks 13th in defensive rating (107.8) and 25th in offensive rating (105.6). Part of their struggles on the offensive side of the ball have to do with injuries, but that doesn’t explain away all of Brooklyn’s issues.

The return of Kyrie Irving has not served as the cure-all pill for Brooklyn’s problems. The Nets are 6-11 with the enigmatic point guard in the lineup and 2-4 since he returned from his lengthy injury. However, Irving turned in what could be his best performance of the season on Saturday. The All-NBA point guard erupted for 45 points, 33 of which came in the second half and overtime.

He didn’t play during Brooklyn’s first trip to Madison Square Garden so it’s safe to expect a “warm” welcome for him on Sunday.

“I think it’ll be crazy. It’s not like he’s going to Boston though,” Damyean Dotson laughed.

Irving is looking forward to his first game in the Garden with the Nets. As a native of New Jersey and a Nets fan growing up, he understands how much fun this rivalry can be when the fans are hyped.

“It’s Brooklyn vs. New York and we understand that. …The crowd’s going to get into it. You look forward to that,” Irving said per Brian Lewis of the New York Post. “As a kid i used to remember the Nets playing the Knicks and how much of a game that was.”

Expect a raucous atmosphere with two teams desperate for a win. Bragging rights for the next nine months are on the line.

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