If the New York Knicks want to make a push and force the teams directly above them into checking the rearview mirror, this upcoming week is the time to do it.
Kicking off a stretch of five contests against opponents who are all well below .500, the Knicks will try to win back-to-back games for the first time in over a month as they host the Utah Jazz on Friday night.
New York (22-40), in 11th place in the weak Eastern Conference, has gone 3-13 since the start of February and is 5 1/2 games behind Atlanta for the eighth and final playoff spot with 20 remaining.
The hobbled Hawks have been mired in a similar funk, losing 12 of 13. Cleveland and Detroit are also trying to chase down Atlanta, but each has lost five of seven.
These recent stumbles have kept the Knicks' slim playoff chances alive, and with games against the Cavaliers, Philadelphia, Boston and NBA-worst Milwaukee following Utah (21-40), they might be able to tighten things up at the bottom of the race.
"I think this year has been an unexpected struggle for us," forward Amare Stoudemire said. "We had high expectations going into the season. At the same time, it builds character. So you've got to stay optimistic and stay focused and positive about things and get things turned around."
New York, which won 54 games last season and reached the conference semifinals, showed flashes of that strong play Wednesday in Minnesota, ending a seven-game losing streak with a 118-106 victory over a Timberwolves team that had won six of seven.
Carmelo Anthony scored 33 points and Raymond Felton broke out of his slump with 18 as the Knicks won for only the second time in their last 12 away from home.
Felton had gone 7 for 32 from the field over five games since his arrest on felony gun charges, but he hit five of his eight shots and added eight assists and four steals.
"If you're not there mentally, it can really mess you up," he said. "But I'm not one to make excuses. I got a lot going on, but there's a lot of people in this world that are dealing with a lot. I can't make that excuse."
Tyson Chandler had 15 points and 14 rebounds, and Stoudemire added 18 points and eight boards in New York's first win since beating New Orleans on Feb. 19.
Stoudemire joined Anthony and Chandler in the starting frontcourt for the second straight game, and that trio helped limit All-Star forward Kevin Love to one point in the second half.
The performance has the Knicks in position to win back-to-back games for the first time since a four-game win streak Jan. 24-30.
Utah is 0-4 on a six-game trip and would appear to offer New York a strong chance to stay on track. The Jazz have lost four straight matchups in the series, including three in a row at Madison Square Garden.
The Jazz dropped to 7-24 away from home this season - worst in the West - with a 104-91 loss at Washington on Wednesday.
Alec Burks scored 19 points and Trey Burke added 14 for Utah, which is second-to-last in the conference and 14 1/2 games behind the nearest playoff position.
"We can't afford to think these last 21 games that we are going to just show up and make it happen, we've got to play to get better," coach Tyrone Corbin said. "We've got to come with focus and energy every night."
The Associated Press News Service
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