• OPPONENT: New York Knicks

    RECORD: 24-40 (8-26 on road, 1-9 last 10 games)

    MEASURABLES: 104.0 offensive rating (24th), 107.5 defensive rating (20th), -3.5 net rating (23rd)

    PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP: Emmanuel Mudiay, Courtney Lee, Tim Hardaway Jr., Michael Beasley, Enes Kanter

    INJURIES: Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL – out for season)

    WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 10:00 EST, Moda Center (Portland), NBC Sports Northwest/MSG

    After stealing another win for the Portland Trail Blazers, his team’s seventh consecutive victory, Damian Lillard threw some post-game shade at his victims – or at least that’s how some seem intent on interpreting it.

    “You gotta take care of each game,” he told Blazer sideline reporter Brooke Olzendam. “Especially against ones like this, teams not in the race.”

    The Los Angeles Lakers, objectively, aren’t actually in the playoff race despite what a sizable portion of their worldwide fan base wants to believe. Luke Walton‘s team entered Monday’s action six games behind the eighth-place Denver Nuggets in the loss column with 20 left to play, and Lillard’s crunch-time heroics in Portland’s 108-103 win pushed them five losses below the Utah Jazz, fighting like hell to make up ground in tenth. Los Angeles wasn’t going to crash the postseason party before losing to the Blazers, and certainly not after the Jazz and struggling San Antonio Spurs won on the same night.

    All Lillard meant was that Portland, with only two fewer losses than Denver despite standing all alone at third in the Western Conference, can’t afford losing to teams it should beat. The Blazers have just four games against losing teams remaining this season with 18 left on the schedule. Even if this recent stretch of improved play is sustained over the next five weeks, they’re inevitably due multiple losses regardless, and the surest means of softening the impact of those defeats is beating the few sub-.500 teams Portland will face as the regular season comes to a close.

    Next up? The New York Knicks.

    It seems like ages ago Jeff Hornacek‘s squad was one of the league’s most pleasant surprises, in the thick of the Eastern Conference middle class with superstar play from Kristaps Porzingis and a home-court advantage that brought mystique back to Madison Square Garden on a nightly basis. All that optimism vanished for good when Porzingis went down with a torn ACL on February 6, but it had actually begun evaporating weeks before then. The Knicks were 16-13 on December 16, and went 7-19 over their next 26 games before their increasingly-fragile franchise player was lost for the season. New York is 1-8 since, with a hideous -13.0 net rating accomplished by equal ineptitude on both sides of the ball.

    If there’s been a bright spot for the Knicks of late, it’s undoubtedly the play of backup point guard Trey Burke, a former top-five pick of the Jazz who was called up from the G-League and signed on January 14. He’s been New York’s best player in the interim, averaging 23.1 points and 7.8 assists per-36 minutes while shooting 53.0 percent from the field and 37.8 percent from 3-point range. Rate statistics aren’t the only evidence of his success, either. Burke had back-to-back 18-point games in January, and back-to-back 26-point outings late last month, including in his team’s 120-113 win over the Orlando Magic – its lone victory since January 30.

    Burke might have revived his NBA career, but he won’t shoot 57.3 percent on non-paint two-pointers forever. Additionally, his team-leading 113.9 offensive rating has barely yielded a positive net rating, mitigated by a 113.1 defensive rating, per NBA.com/stats. If a G-League call-up’s scorching hot hand isn’t enough to produce consistently winning basketball, just what can the Knicks count on for success over the season’s final stretch? A better question: In the last year of the current lottery system, do they even want to find it?

    Michael Beasley thinks, or hopes, so.

    “If you still need to get motivated to play basketball, you probably shouldn’t be playing,’” he told the New York Post’s Marc Berman. “At the end of the day it’s a game. It’s a game you grew up loving. It’s a game you still love. If you got to get motivated to play, that’s a bad sign.”

    A worse sign might be that all New York has to rely on is the thrill of competition. Will that be enough to beat the Blazers at Moda Center? The only advantage the Knicks have is that Portland is playing on the second night of an emotional back-to-back. Maybe there’s the possibility of a letdown.

    But the Blazers know the stakes of every game left on their schedule, and the Knicks, the worst team in basketball over the past month, are playing for nothing but pride and lottery balls. New York, like Los Angeles, isn’t in the playoff race. Unlike Portland losing to the Lakers at Staples Center, though, a home loss to the Knicks would be something close to shocking – with or without Lillard further strengthening his MVP resumé.

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