Surging Rockets visit New York as Knicks in flux

NBA

Nobody at Madison Square Garden is likely to understand what interim New York Knicks head coach Mike Miller is going through Monday night more than Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni.

And if Miller is entering his final 22 games at the helm of the Knicks, he can only hope things go as well in the future as they have for D’Antoni, a former New York coach whose surging Rockets will look to extend their winning streak when they visit New York.

Both teams were off Sunday after earning wins Saturday night. The Rockets opened a two-game Eastern Conference road trip by earning their sixth straight win with a 111-110 overtime victory over the Boston Celtics, and the Knicks snapped their six-game losing streak by beating the Chicago Bulls, 125-115.

A fourth trip to the playoffs in as many years under D’Antoni is all but certain for the Rockets (39-20), whose win Saturday gave them a two-game lead over the Utah Jazz in the race for the fourth seed in the Western Conference. Houston also entered Sunday a game behind the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets, who were tied for second in the conference.

With former NBA Most Valuable Players James Harden and Russell Westbrook in their backcourt, perhaps this is the year the Rockets — who squandered a three games to two lead in the 2018 Western Conference Finals — can take that next step and reach the NBA Finals for the first time since the Hakeem Olajuwon-led squad won the second of back-to-back titles in 1995.

Westbrook, who scored 41 points Saturday, and Harden, who hit the go-ahead free throws with 25 seconds left, have met expectations. They are the first teammates to each have a 30-game streak of 20-point games since Elgin Baylor and Jerry West with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1961-62.

But a renewed emphasis on defense might be what puts the Rockets over the top. Houston held the Celtics scoreless over the final 2:49 of overtime and allowed 112 points or fewer for the sixth straight game after doing so just 27 times in the first 53 games of the season.

“You have to find other ways to win if you want to be a contender,” D’Antoni said afterward. “And we found it tonight.”

The Knicks, on the other hand, have made the playoffs twice since firing D’Antoni during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season and are on pace to miss the postseason for the seventh straight season. New York has employed six head coaches, counting Miller, since firing D’Antoni and none of Miller’s predecessors have landed an NBA head coaching job since being fired in Manhattan.

Miller, who is 14-24 since taking over for David Fizdale on Dec. 6, seems unlikely to retain the job with former agent Leon Rose scheduled to take over as team president. But New York’s young core has shown promise under Miller — especially Saturday, when rookie RJ Barrett scored 19 points, second-year player Mitchell Robinson scored a career-high 23 points and fellow NBA sophomore Kevin Knox II added 12 points in his first double-digit effort since Feb. 3.

“It felt good to finally have a good game,” Knox said afterward. “These last 20 games, I’m trying to end it on a good note. I haven’t had the season I wanted.”

–Field Level Media

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