For the Knicks, expectations and circumstances converge midseason

Through a stage of losing seven of their last 10 games before facing the Chicago Bulls last night (Wednesday) at Madison Square Garden, the Knicks have remained compelling and competitive, and an arms-length away from the eighth and last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

They were 19-21 after a much needed and gripping 100-96 win in Dallas Sunday night against the Mavericks, the Knicks’ final game of a three-game, five-day road trip. After facing the Timberwolves in Minnesota tomorrow night, the Knicks return to MSG to host the New Orleans Pelicans Sunday before playing their next seven games on the road.

The arduous journey begins in Brooklyn Monday night against the Nets, continues in Memphis versus the Grizzlies next Wednesday and then perilously carries on out west, including a visit to Oakland to meet the Golden State Warriors Jan. 23. The Knicks won’t be back at the Garden until Jan. 30, when they will reunite with the Nets.

When this season started, a plurality of Knicks fans had little expectations of the team making the playoffs. Their desire, given the dysfunction that the franchise’s new president Steve Mills and first-year general manager Scott Perry inherited, was to build a sturdy foundation, with 22-year-old Kristaps Porzingis being the primary cornerstone. First-round pick Frank Ntilikna was an unknown, an 18-year-old point guard from France having been selected with the eighth overall pick, one slot ahead of North Carolina State’s ultra-athletic lead guard Dennis Smith Jr.

In June, many Knick diehards were displeased that former team president Phil Jackson passed on the 6-foot-3 Smith in favor of the 6-foot-5 Ntilikina and were even more distressed a month later when Smith’s often spectacular play at the Las Vegas Summer League, which Ntilikina sat out with a bruised knee, revealed a potential star.

Perspectives changed when the Knicks emerged as one of the more intriguing teams in the Eastern Conference, with Enes Kanter and Michael Beasley surfacing as high-impact players, lifting the team to three games over .500 two months into the season.

But now, as they reach the midpoint of the season, with Tim Hardaway Jr. out since Dec. 3 with a stress injury to his lower left leg, their recent stretch has proved the Knicks aren’t yet ready for contender status. Nevertheless, the landscape looks promising, and Ntilikina’s first meeting of the season against Smith Sunday, despite being only one game, the smallest possible sample, provided a measure of vindication for Jackson.

The Knicks’ rookie outperformed his counterpart, posting a stat line of seven points, seven rebounds, five assists and two blocks while running the Knicks’ offense with veteran-like proficiency for most of the fourth quarter. Smith, who struggled with his shot, going 5-14 for 11 points, was gracious in his appraisal of Ntilikina but downplayed the comparisons after the two engaged in a demonstrably friendly exchange on the court after the game.

“I already knew he’s a really good player and has a bright future,” Smith said to the assembled media in Dallas. “We didn’t have too many plays with me and him one-on-one. But he’s a good defender. It’s nothing but respect on my end for him. But I’m not trying to measure up to anybody.”

Neither should the Knicks as their primary goal should be to improve as a unit and not chase an elusive playoff spot.