Losers of two straight out West, the Knicks conclude their four-game trip Tuesday night in Utah.
If the Knicks looked gassed during stretches of their games in Sacramento and Portland, it’s no mirage. So says guard Austin Rivers, who has become a team’s most candid player since signing as a free agent in November.
The Utah game will mark the end of the Knicks’ pandemic schedule that saw them play 12 of their first 19 on the road. They are not only fighting their opponents but the hefty amount of COVID-19 road-trip protocols found in an 82-page NBA document.
“Oh, we’re definitely tired,’’ Rivers said after Tuesday’s morning shootaround. “Our schedule, I would challenge anybody to put up their schedule vs. ours. I don’t know how a schedule could be tougher than what we’ve played. Physically and mentally. At the same time, it is what it is. Here we are.”
The Knicks have an 8-10 record across their first 18 games – which is a lot better than preseason expectations. But head coach Tom Thibodeau keeps a short rotation and, with injuries, key players have played monster minutes.
Julius Randle and RJ Barrett haven’t missed a game and were recently 1-2 in minutes played in the NBA.
Currently Randle ranks second in average minutes (36.7) while Barrett dropped into a virtual tie for sixth (36.2) after being benched in the fourth quarter Sunday in Portland.
Barrett looked like he had nothing left in the tank against the Blazers and finished with eight points, following a six-game spree when he averaged 21 points.
“We’re fatigued but we’re ready to go,’’ Rivers said. “You know what I mean? Just got to go out and compete and figure out how to win games every night. I think the biggest thing, when you have a long season, the best way to approach these games is to try to put a positive spin on everything. We’ve lost two in a row but at the same time we won our first game on this road trip.”
Indeed the Knicks began the trip with a stirring 119-104 rout of Golden State bottling up Stephen Curry in the second half in San Francisco. But they faltered in Sacramento and Portland.
In the latter, the Knicks faced a very well-rested team that had a week off due to COVID-19 cancellations. The Knicks fell behind by 70-50 at halftime before making a late charge behind rookie Immanuel Quickley to lose by 3.
After Utah, 11 of the Knicks’ next 16 games are at the fan-less Garden, starting with Cleveland on Friday
“We can come out of this road trip 2-2, .500, that’s solid,’’ Rivers said before the Utah match. “We can come out of this trip 2-2 and head back home so that’s how we have to look at it now. It would be a great feeling for us to come in here – this is the hottest team in the NBA we’re playing. Utah’s playing better basketball than anybody in the NBA. So for us to beat a team like this, this would be huge for us, so we’ve got to look at it like that.’’
The Jazz have won eight straight. Their last loss? Against the Knicks on Jan. 5.
Thursday also marks the anniversary of Kobe Bryant’s death. Rivers got to know Bryant and the Lakers great was something of a mentor. Rivers said Bryant would always seek him out after games to offer some review.
“I don’t want to say he didn’t seem human – but it’s the same thing that someone like LeBron (James) has,’’ Rivers said. “Those guys move differently. They aren’t basketball players. They are basketball. When you see someone like that go, it makes life feel so fragile and makes you feel so human.”