Winners of 12 of their last 13 games, the Knicks are soaring. Can they keep up their positive momentum with a win over MVP front-runner Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets? 

Since a two-point loss at the hands of the Boston Celtics on April 7th, the New York Knicks (37-28) have elevated themselves to a whole other level. New York has raised from a team with a record under .500 to a team that currently sits fourth in the Eastern Conference. They enter Wednesday winning 12 of their last 13 games, and the conversation has turned from happy-to-be-here to playoffs and how far exactly can they go?

As the Knicks try to tighten their grip on the no. 4 seed in the East, they will have a good late-season litmus test with a Cinco de Mayo game against the Nikola Jokic Denver Nuggets (43-22).

Denver currently sits third in the Western Conference, fighting with the Los Angeles Clippers to maintain their position. Looking like a contender after acquiring Aaron Gordon, the Nuggets continue to find themselves after the season-ending injury to Jamal Murray, even enrolling former Knick guard Austin Rivers to help with their backcourt. These two teams haven’t played since January 10th, so it’ll be a relatively fresh look for both teams.

Last time out

The Knicks were still figuring out their identity and getting used to Tom Thibodeau’s new system when these two teams last faced off. New York was beaten badly by Denver, 114-89, and it was right in the middle of an early-season five-game losing streak. Denver built an early 20-point lead in the first half, and they never let up.

Nearly everything that could’ve gone wrong for the Knicks happened outside of Julius Randle. Like he had done many times since that January 10th loss, Randle carried the Knicks with a 29-point, 10-rebound performance but didn’t get any help. R.J. Barrett struggled, shooting only 4-of-13 en route to a nine-point finish. There was no boost from the bench, which was pretty nonexistent, and Elfrid Payton had more minutes than desired.

The Knicks couldn’t get anything going from deep, shooting just 6-of-21 as a team (28.6%). Meanwhile, Denver was hot from the three-point line, shooting 15-of-35 (42.9%) collectively.

New York also didn’t have an answer for Nikola Jokic, who seemed to get whatever he wanted. The star big man led the Nuggets with 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting, with 10 rebounds, five assists, one steal, and one block. He capitalized on his open opportunities and dished out to the open teammates when the Knicks tried to over-compensate on him defensively.

There’s no doubt New York has come a long way on both ends of the court since then, but this won’t be an easy one for the road team. Denver has won six straight at home and currently stands at 24-10 this season at the Ball Arena—one of the best home records in the league. For the Knicks, traveling to Denver and knocking off the Nuggets at home would be a huge victory and offers more late-season momentum going into the playoffs.

Frontcourt friends

For the Knicks, they’ll need all the help they can get up front. Not only to deal with Jokic but the Nuggets as a whole.

Denver averages 49.7 points in the paint as a team, the ninth-highest clip in the NBA. In the first meeting with the Nuggets, Mitchell Robinson has been out, and Nerlens Noel is a more recent addition to the injury list.

In their place, Thibodeau slid veteran Taj Gibson and the young Norvel Pelle up the depth chart. Both appeared to be ready for the challenge and played well against Memphis. Gibson only scored six points, but his presence was felt on the defensive end. He recorded 12 rebounds and five blocks for the first time in five seasons. 

Pelle chipped in 15 minutes off the bench and had three blocks. They definitely won’t be needed to supply a scoring punch, but their defensive contributions were encouraging to see. They’ll face a bigger test on Wednesday, but if they replicate a similar performance, the frontcourt should be in good hands.

It’ll remain to be seen if Pelle will play, as he has issues with his right ankle. Still, regardless of who suits up for New York, the combination of Jokic, Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., and Paul Millsap will be an effective quartet of big men capable of swinging the game either way.

(UPDATE: ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that Noel will be available tonight after missing Monday’s game.)

MVP matchup

With all the buzz surrounding the Knicks, the awards and accolades are the talks of the town. Head coach Tom Thibodeau seems like the front-runner for the Coach of the Year award, while Derrick Rose’s stock for Sixth Man of the Year has been growing after his recent performances during the team’s winning streak. The buzz is also growing for their leading man, Julius Randle. Randle, the favorite for the Most Improved Player award, has also begun to see an uptick in MVP chatter. 

Knicks fans are happy to see their All-Star get some national praise and get attention for his play this season, but ultimately, Randle is still behind Jokic, who many consider as the front-runner for the league’s highest individual award. Randle is no slouch, averaging 24.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 5.9 assists, while Jokic has edged him with 26.3 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 8.5 assists.

Not only that, but Jokic is shooting 56.4% from the floor, all while playing a total of 100 fewer minutes than Randle.

However, Wednesday offers a chance for Randle to make a statement in Jokic’s own house. Can the MIP award front-runner upstage Jokic and strengthen his case as a true MVP contender?

Wednesday’s game is set to tip-off at 9 p.m. ET.