J.R. Smith issued a verbal challenge to his teammates a couple days ago.
"This right here shows your true colors, shows you're character, who you are as a player and as a person," Smith said after the New York Knicks' 31-point defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday. "Do you want to fold and go home? Then that's what people are going to see. This right here shows who you really are. It sucks that it has to come down to this, but [unfortunately] it does."
The Knicks responded well on Wednesday, beating the Sacramento Kings on the road to move to within two games of the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
It could have been easier, of course. Had the Knicks beaten the Cleveland Cavaliers last Sunday and Los Angeles on Tuesday, they would have been alone in eighth place entering Thursday's games.
Instead, the Knicks face an uphill climb to make the playoffs. A playoff berth is key for New York: If the Knicks miss the playoffs, it increases the value of the pick they have to send to the Denver Nuggets as part of the Carmelo Anthony trade.
With that in mind, we'll take a quick game-by-game look at what lies ahead:
March 28: Knicks at Phoenix Suns
The Knicks beat the Suns in overtime at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 13 to improve to 15-22, so they won't have to deal with the mental hurdle of playing a team that had wiped the floor with them earlier in the season.
But New York needed overtime to get by Phoenix, who was without Eric Bledsoe, in January. Bledsoe will play Friday. His backcourt mate, Goran Dragic, torched the Knicks for 28 points in Phoenix's overtime loss.
March 30: Knicks at Golden State Warriors
The Warriors appear to be a team in turmoil, with head coach Mark Jackson pulling a Jason Kidd and getting rid of assistant coach Brian Scalabrine.
March 31: Knicks at Utah Jazz
The Jazz have dropped 13 of 15, so this is one of the few games left on the Knicks' schedule that they should have no problem winning.
New York beat Utah by 27 points at home on March 7.
April 2: Knicks vs. Brooklyn Nets
Brooklyn will be playing the second game of a back-to-back against the Knicks. They'll play the Houston Rockets the night before, so the Knicks might be able to take advantage of a tired Nets squad.
Brooklyn embarrassed the Knicks at the Garden on MLK Day, winning by 23 points.
The Knicks won the opening round of the intra-borough battle by 30 on Dec. 5.
April 4: Knicks vs. Washington Wizards
Wall, Beal and Webster averaged 69 points between them in the Wizards' two wins over New York.
Webster lit the Knicks up for 30 points in New York's disastrous one-point loss on Dec. 16. Wall had 31 points and seven assists in the Wizards' home win in late November.
April 6: Knicks at Miami Heat
James went off for 30 points and seven assists in Miami's 15-point win at the Garden on Feb. 1.
Wade getting the night off wouldn't be a bad thing for the Knicks either.
He had 22 points on 10-for-15 shooting in the Heat win on Feb. 1.
April 11: Knicks at Toronto Raptors
Knicks owner James Dolan reportedly pulled out of a proposed deal to bring Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry to New York in December. That decision may come back to bite Dolan's team. Lowry torched the Knicks for 32 points in a 115-100 win on Dec. 28, just one example of a point guard going off against New York's perimeter defense.
April 13: Knicks vs. Chicago Bulls
The Knicks were thoroughly embarrassed the last time they played the Bulls.
They fell behind 16-1 to open the game, and were down by as many as 25 in the first half.
To have a chance at revenge, Tyson Chandler and the Knicks' defense need to figure out how to slow down Joakim Noah. Noah had 13 points, 12 rebounds and 14 assists against the Knicks. The 14 assists were the most by an NBA center since at least 1985-86.
April 15: Knicks at Nets
You wonder if Kevin Garnett will be back for Brooklyn at this point. As ESPN New York's Mike Mazzeo points out, Brooklyn has gone 10-4 in Garnett's absence, but has gotten torched by some of the top big men in the NBA. Maybe Amar'e Stoudemire can take advantage of Garnett's absence.
April 16: Knicks vs. Raptors
Best-case scenario for the Knicks? They need a win and Toronto has its playoff situation settled. If the Raptors need this game to improve playoff seeding, New York will have a hungry, talented team on its hands.
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