For most teams, the implication of “road trip” is that it’s more daunting.
For the Knicks, it’s more in their comfort zone.
New York’s trend of playing better away from Madison Square Garden has held up through 80% of the season, making the Knicks the only NBA team with a better record this season on the road.
It was a reassuring development as they departed for a four-game Western Coast swing that began late Thursday in Sacramento, with the Knicks entering the evening tied for the league’s best road record with Boston and Milwaukee. During their previous lengthy Western Conference trip in November, they might have saved Tom Thibodeau’s job by beating the Nuggets, Jazz and Thunder.
Now their goal is to maintain a top-5 playoff spot with games at the Kings, Clippers, Lakers and Blazers.
“It’s extremely important,” said Josh Hart. “Obviously we have Sac. A tough Clipper team. A Laker team that’s been playing well and desperate to try and get in the play-in and the playoffs, and Portland the same thing. They’re playing well and they’re really fighters.
“It’s important. I think if we go out there and we continue to grow and to play good basketball, I think we’ll be happy at the end of the road trip. But we have to take it a game at a time and learn and continue to play together and unselfish.”
So why have the Knicks been so good on the road?
“I think what makes us successful is when we go on the road, we don’t really change too much with our preparation and stuff like that,” RJ Barrett said. “Guys are really locked in, and we have a team of guys that come ready every day and put the work in and are really focused on basketball, trying to win these games.”
That’s just a salad of cliches from Barrett and not very helpful. But there’s something to be said about the correlation between a disciplined team and success on the road, where immature rosters find more opportunities for partying and distractions. (The Grizzlies, perhaps not coincidentally, are 26-5 at home and 12-21 on the road. Before Ja Morant flashed a gun at a strip club during a recent road trip, Memphis veteran Steven Adams reportedly led a players-only meeting about being more disciplined on the road).
There’s also a convenience on the road of being in the same hotel and close to the arena. It’s not as easy in New York, where the Knicks’ training facility is an hour-plus commute from MSG in Tarrytown. The setup prompts most players to live in Westchester County, rather than Manhattan, and detracts from the allure of playing for the biggest market. In fact, an NBA star told the Daily News this season that the practice facility’s location — along with New York’s high taxes — are deterrents for players.
“Otherwise,” he said, “I’d say it’s top-5 [as a free agency destination], and Jalen [Brunson] has made it better.”
Of course, the discussion around road success is mostly speculative. It’s impossible to know for certain what makes it click. Just that, for whatever reason, it worked for the Knicks before their final big road trip of the season.