The Knicks and Nets each have bigger concerns than their rivalry as they get ready to clash Tuesday night at Barclays Center.
For the red-hot Knicks, it’s to continue proving they’ve perhaps elevated to the group of NBA title contenders since they acquired OG Anunoby from the Raptors.
And if they’re not yet there, to find out how they can reach that level with the trade deadline looming in two weeks.
The Nets have much more modest goals these days.
To simply play competitive basketball for 48 minutes, a capacity that has recently gone missing. To improve their shoddy defense, which has been one of the worst in the league. To see whether head coach Jacque Vaughn, whose affable personality has made him popular, is capable of righting the ship as calls for his job from fans increase.
“I don’t know, I’ll leave that for the fans,” Julius Randle said Monday about the Knicks-Nets rivalry. “To be honest, that’s more of an in-city thing, New York thing, that I’ll leave for the fans to debate. But you know it’s definitely always a different atmosphere, energy when we do play them, for sure.”
After the games of Dec. 13, the Knicks and Nets had identical 13-10 records, tied for seventh in the Eastern Conference, but their seasons have gone in radically different directions since then.
They met a week later, at Barclays Center, and the Knicks won convincingly, 121-102, in a sign of things to come.
The Knicks wobbled a bit after that Dec. 20 rivalry win, dropping four of their next five. But since they traded RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley to acquire Anunoby, they’ve taken off, going 9-2.
Meanwhile, the Nets have lost 15 of their past 19 games, including two separate five-game losing streaks and a four-game skid.
The Knicks (26-17) have surged to the No. 5 seed in the East, one game behind the fourth-place Cavaliers and with a two-game lead over the sixth-place Heat.
The Nets (17-25) have tumbled to 11th in the East, out of the Play-In Tournament altogether.
What’s behind the two teams’ diverging paths?
Jalen Brunson, who seems to keep elevating his game, and Anunoby have helped raise the Knicks’ ceiling as a team.
Brunson has emerged as one of the best shooters in the league and the Knicks’ best scorer since Carmelo Anthony.
Amid critiques from some analysts that he was too small or not at the level of a superstar capable of powering a title run, Brunson has produced career-best numbers. He’s averaging 26.5 points and 6.5 assists per game — including 29.0 and 7.9 in the 14 games since the last Nets meeting with outbursts of 38 and 41 points in the Knicks’ past two outings.
Anunoby has fit Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau’s blueprint seamlessly. He’s a classic 3-and-D player, a dogged defender and capable shooter who’s also adept and cutting and finishing at the rim.
The Knicks have outscored opponents by 190 points in Anunoby’s minutes, the best individual plus-minus rating for any player in the NBA in that span. He’s provided more spacing and balance on offense in comparison to Barrett, which has given Randle more room to operate.
The Nets’ biggest stars have been struggling.
In the Nets’ first 23 games, Mikal Bridges averaged 23.0 points on 48.6 percent shooting (with 38.3 percent shooting from 3 and 86.6 percent from the free-throw line). In their past 19, he’s down to 19.4 points per game on shooting splits of 40.7/32.2/81.6.
Spencer Dinwiddie has been a shell of himself, averaging 13.5 points on 39.9 percent shooting. In the past 15 games, a stretch that began with the loss to the Knicks, he’s averaging just 11.1 points.
Anunoby also has sparked the Knicks’ once-struggling defense up to seventh in the NBA in defensive rating (they rank second since Anunoby made his team debut on Jan. 1). The Nets defense — they rank 19th in defensive rating — has emerged as a glaring weakness.
It’s telling how different the Knicks’ and Nets’ outlooks are, from their first meeting to their second clash of the season Tuesday night.
Today’s back page
On Monday night, 76ers center Joel Embiid scored 70 points (24-of-41 from the field, 1-of-2 from 3-point range, 21-of-23 on free throws) in a win over the Spurs. He became just the ninth player to score at least 70 in an NBA game.
Who are the other eight? Hint: Three are active.
(Scroll to the bottom for the answer.)
Season-long struggles often have a way of recurring at the most important times.
Kicking is one of the most notable, and it was at the forefront of the NFL playoffs’ Divisional round games over the weekend.
Packers kicker Anders Carlson missed a 41-yard field goal wide left in the fourth quarter against the 49ers on Saturday, and the team’s upset bid came up three points short in an eventual 24-21 loss.
Then, on Sunday, Bills kicker Tyler Bass missed what would have been a game-tying 44-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter as they fell to the Chiefs, 27-24, in heartbreaking fashion. Bass missed wide right, echoing Scott Norwood’s infamous 47-yard miss to seal the Bills’ loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XXV.
Carlson and Bass had struggled throughout the season, and they let their teams down when they were needed most.
Bass hit just 82.8 percent of his field-goal attempts in the regular season, which ranked 23rd in the NFL. Carlson was 24th at 81.8 percent, and hit just 87.2 percent of his extra points.
Bass also missed two field goals in the Bills’ Wild Card round win over the Steelers, and Carlson missed an extra point in the Packers’ easy win over the Cowboys.
Should it have been on the Packers and Bills to find better kickers before the playoffs?
It’s hard to argue the Packers didn’t invest in the position. They used a sixth-round draft pick on the rookie Carlson, high for a kicker. It’s understandable they didn’t want to move off him so quickly — did they simply get the pick wrong?
Cowboys rookie kicker Brandon Aubrey, who was signed from the USFL, had an elite first season in the NFL, drilling 94.7 percent of his field-goal attempts in the regular season. 49ers rookie kicker Jake Moody, drafted even higher than Carlson in the third round, hit 84.0 percent of his field goals.
Bass had emerged as a steady presence the prior two seasons, hitting 87.5 and 87.1 percent of his kicks, respectively. Should the Bills have had a short leash and brought in competition for Bass this season, or were they right to trust his body of work?
Either way, both the Packers and Bills were burned by kicking after it plagued them throughout the season.
The New York teams could enter next season in good shape at kicker.
Greg Zuerlein was a rare bright spot for the Jets this past season, hitting 92.1 percent of his field-goal tries, including 5-of-6 from 50+ yards. The 36-year-old is set to become a free agent.
Graham Gano had been one of the league’s best with the Giants. He missed a majority of the 2023 season due to a knee injury, and kicking became a struggle for the Giants, who cycled between three replacements. Gano, who turns 37 in April, is set to return next season.
If either team has postseason ambitions, they will want to have kicking as a strength.
The Hall calls
On Tuesday evening, the newest members of the Baseball Hall of Fame will be revealed. Adrian Beltre and Joe Mauer are projected to reach Cooperstown with Todd Helton right behind. Former Mets closer Billy Wagner is on the bubble.
The chart above shows how The Post’s 11 current Hall of Fame voters cast their ballots and who would gain entry if it were up to our panel.
Joel Sherman explains his ballot in depth for Plus members.
Gotham’s national treasure
Gotham FC’s superteam-style additions are good for New York, a sports town that loves a winner.
They’re good for the National Women’s Soccer League, garnering more visibility as it begins a new media rights deal and a new era of ownership investment.
And it just might be good for … the United States’ chances at the Olympics?
Think about this: There’s a world in which a starting XI for the USWNT at this summer’s Games in Paris — the team’s big chance to erase the sting of last year’s World Cup misery — features up to five Gotham FC players.
First, the four new free agents: Rose Lavelle at attacking midfielder, what’s known in soccer as the No. 10. Emily Sonnett at defensive midfielder, the No. 6 spot. Crystal Dunn, playing out of position as she traditionally has in the national team setup, at left back. Tierna Davidson at center back, pairing with captain-in-waiting Naomi Girma.
And returning Gotham winger Lynn Williams could figure in as well, depending on how the forward line is shaped by the injury returns of Mallory Swanson and Catarina Macario.
“In the NWSL, for a long time, many years in a row, it was very restricted on where we could go and how many players on the national team could be on a team,” Dunn said Friday as Gotham’s free agents were introduced in Midtown. “So I think now with free agency, you’re going to see probably in the future, more of us maybe on teams together, which I think could add a huge benefit, too.”
The benefit is in cohesion and chemistry that’s been built up outside of the rare windows when the national team assembles.
The Germany team that won the 2014 men’s World Cup, for example, drew many of its most influential players from the same club team, Bayern Munich. And the core of 2023 women’s World Cup winners Spain plays together on the club level with FC Barcelona (which, quick aside, might be the most dominant team in all of pro sports right now — they’re 13-0-0 in Liga F with a 59-3 goals differential).
So if it’s a golden summer for the USWNT, they might have the winter and spring developments in New York/New Jersey to thank.
— Jonathan Lehman
Talk about a bad break
Imagine if this happened in an American sports league?
Mohamed Salah, a superstar winger for Liverpool in the English Premier League, picked up a hamstring injury late last week while playing with the Egyptian national team in the African Cup of Nations, and now is expected to miss at least three or four weeks.
The African Cup of Nations, along with the AFC Asian Cup, are outliers among international tournaments — they run during the European club soccer season.
Salah left Liverpool in the thick of a fierce title race in the Premier League, where they are currently top of the table.
Imagine if Nikola Jokic got injured while playing with the Serbian national team right before the NBA playoffs? Or if Patrick Mahomes got hurt in the middle of the NFL season playing internationally in the North America Football Cup?
The backlash would be fierce. Not just if they were to get injured, but likely for even playing at all.
Mets closer Edwin Diaz missed all of last season after suffering a torn patella tendon while celebrating — not even pitching — with the Puerto Rico national team at the World Baseball Classic last March.
But that occurred in the offseason, when most international tournaments — in all sports — take place.
But to lose a star player, and worse, to have one get injured in the middle of the season for a separate competition?
The fury would run rampant.
What we’re reading 👀
⚾ The Post’s Dan Martin caught up with former Yankees right-hander Michael King, who shared why he thinks the Padres won the Juan Soto trade that shipped King to San Diego.
🏈 The thrilling playoff atmosphere in Detroit as the Lions advanced to the NFC Championship “is what I’ve been missing at the Giants and Jets games I’ve been covering for the past decade-plus,” writes The Post’s Mark Cannizzaro.
🏈 The Jets will be in the market for a veteran backup quarterback. Jacoby Brissett? Ryan Tannehill? A look at some options.
🏒 The Post’s Larry Brooks on Will Cuylle, an avatar for what the Rangers have been missing.
🎾 It was scratchy as hell, but Coco Gauff advanced to the Australian Open semifinals.
⚾ The Pirates chose to spend their little bit of money on … Aroldis Chapman? OK.
Wilt Chamberlain (six times), Kobe Bryant, David Thompson, Damian Lillard, Elgin Baylor, David Robinson, Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker