Maybe this winning spurt is a blip on a long, losing road of development, but Trey Burke believes the New York Knicks should focus on larger stuff — the playoffs.
The Knicks carry a three-game winning streak into Detroit on Tuesday. The NBA’s youngest team have beaten in succession three playoff-caliber clubs in Boston, New Orleans and Memphis — securing two on the road.
This won’t sit well with the lottery police but there was a sentiment gaining steam Sunday in a damp Knicks’ locker room — all wet from a bucket of ice water tossed on David Fizdale’s head after he beat his former Memphis team.
“Obviously everyone ‘s counting us out,” Burke told the Post late Sunday at FedEx Forum. “Look on paper, people don’t think we can do it. I think we believe we have a chance — and it’s early for me to say this — but I believe we have a chance to get in the playoffs this year. That should be our goal. I think that is our goal. It starts now.”
At 7-14, the Knicks are in 12th place in the Eastern Conference, three games out of the 8th seed. The lottery is destiny in eyes of most Knicks fans — even management. But for a pie-eyed optimist, who knows what the Knicks can be if there’s a January/February return from an effective Kristaps Porzingis.
In their three victories, the Knicks jacked up their defense and late-game clutchness — which had been an Achilles’ heel. In eight of their 14 losses, the Knicks were either tied or ahead in the fourth quarter.
Burke had been most vocal on the Knicks’ shaky late-game performances, making a comparison to a needed “life-and-death” mentality and invoking the Navy Seals.
“We’re building habits now and closing out games,” Burke said. “Coach has changed the lineup a few times. He’s trying to see what works. I believe at the pace we’re playing at right now, it’s working to our advantage.”
The winning streak followed a disastrous six-game losing stretch during which the Knicks gave up at least 128 points in three blowout defeats.
They allowed a season-low 98 points to Memphis Sunday and 109 apiece to Boston and the Pelicans. Memphis shot a modest 44 percent and Boston and New Orleans each 39 percent.
The clinching play Sunday in Memphis came on Burke’s interception and fastbreak feed to Emmanuel Mudiay for a monstrous one-handed and-one dunk over Garrett Temple with 1:35 left.
“It was all defense [Sunday],” Burke said. “That got us this win. In past games, we had trouble closing out possessions on the defensive end. Against an experienced ballclub in Memphis, we did a great job collectively.
“That’s what it’s all about in this league. How do you close out games. How you come together in the last five minutes, especially on the road. We did that.”
Fizdale had been accused of too many lineup shakeups but he’s found something in pacesetter Mudiay as starting point guard seven games ago. He then returned Enes Kanter over rookie project Mitchell Robinson as starting center last Monday vs. Portland.
Kanter mauled Marc Gasol with 21 points and a career-high 26 rebounds.
“I’ve really been pushing him defensively and he’s really taken it up for us where he’s helping us defensively,” Fizdale said.
They go for their first four-game winning streak since last December.
“The thing I’m most happy about is the way we’re taking punches and we keep coming,” added Fizdale, no longer overplaying his three rookies. “We’re figuring out ways to win games. Whether it’s getting stops, a timely executed play, a big shot from somebody. This young team is starting to figure a couple of things out.”
Hardaway Jr. has been adamant about his hatred for a tanking mentality. After the Boston shocker on Thanksgiving Eve, Hardaway tempered expectations, saying the team hadn’t accomplished anything yet.
“What I said in Boston, we’re trying to let everyone know we’re still trying to stay humble,” Hardaway Jr. said. “We can’t be satisfied with one game. We had to string wins together and take what we learned from that one win and get a second. Now we got a third one. Let’s see what we can do going into Detroit.”
Burke, Hardaway’s longtime Michigan Wolverines pal, says the club has to block out the noise that the franchise is better off shooting for Zion Williamson and not wins.
“We definitely believe as long as we keep the outside [out], we can control what’s inside here,” Burke said. “You got to be able to control what’s coming into our head. That’s from social media and family members saying stuff. We have a goal in mind here. We have to make sure what we talk about and strive toward stays here and nothing else creeps in. That’s how we start pulling out these type games.”