A change at the top appears to have made a world of difference for the surging New York Knicks, who have their sights set on the Atlantic Division crown.
Another matchup with the lowly Toronto Raptors could help them inch closer to ultimately climbing into first place.
Looking to improve to 6-0 under interim coach Mike Woodson, the visiting Knicks also seek a seventh win in eight meetings with the Raptors as the teams meet for the second time in four days Friday night.
Woodson, who was promoted following former coach Mike D'Antoni's resignation last week, has New York (23-24) clicking on all cylinders. While the Knicks have averaged 105.2 points - well above their season mark of 97.6 - in winning all five games since Woodson took over, their defense has also really stood out.
New York has surrendered just 86.6 points per contest during its run and produced another stringy effort during Wednesday's 82-79 win at division-leading Philadelphia. The third-place Knicks, who were seven games in back of the 76ers a little over a week ago, moved within three thanks to a 47-39 rebounding edge and holding them to 38.7 percent shooting.
"From a coaching standpoint, I was sweating," said Woodson, whose team now owns the head-to-head tiebreaker with Philadelphia. "But I've learned that our guys are not going to buckle. I honestly believe that they think they can win every game now when they step out on the floor. I have to keep pushing them to play at a high level.
"If we continue to play at the pace we're playing we've got a legitimate shot to move up."
A visit to the Air Canada Centre could help them just do that. New York, which cruised to a 106-87 win over Toronto (15-32) on Tuesday, has taken six of seven in the series - including three straight on the road by an average of 8.3 points.
"They're a tenacious, different team," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said following Tuesday's loss. "It's amazing, their tenacity, the way they attack. If you don't meet it, they take you out."
Toronto suffered its third straight defeat Wednesday, falling 94-82 to short-handed Chicago. Despite playing without reigning MVP Derrick Rose, the Bulls shot 50.0 percent from the field and outscored the Raptors 32-13 over the final 12 minutes, erasing a 12-point deficit. Opponents are shooting 50.7 percent from the field versus Toronto during its last four games.
"They know what they have to do (down the stretch) and we have to be the same way," said DeMar DeRozan, who scored 23 points. "We have to be able to lock down on defense even if we aren't making shots."
James Johnson was the only other player to score in double figures with 16 points, and Andrea Bargnani was held to eight as he went 2 of 10 from the field.
Bargnani averaged 23.5 points over his first 13 games of the season but has compiled just 12.5 per contest on 33.7 percent shooting over an eight-game stretch since returning from a calf injury.
"Offensively, I'm playing bad. That's it," Bargnani said. "I'm trying to do other stuff, play defense, make an extra pass. The injury's fine. I'm (just) playing really bad offensively."
In addition to Bargnani's recent struggles, an injury to Jerryd Bayless hasn't made things any easier on Toronto. Averaging 14.3 points this month, Bayless suffered a hip pointer in the second half Tuesday against the Knicks and played less than two minutes versus the Bulls. He is listed as day-to-day and uncertain to be available.
- Toronto Raptors
- New York Knicks
- Mike Woodson