After a three-game losing streak dropped the New York Knicks to 10th place in the Eastern Conference, they'll look to get back on track when they host the Orlando Magic on Monday in a crucial matchup of Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls.

The Knicks (30-39) will be looking to avoid their longest skid of the season as they take on an Orlando team that's 1 1/2 games ahead of them in the playoff race. New York and Orlando are among four teams within 1 1/2 games of each other that are battling for the final two playoff spots in the East.

The Magic (32-38) helped their cause with Friday's 90-82 win over New Jersey, one of the teams in that playoff logjam. The game was tied entering the fourth quarter, but the Magic outscored the Nets 31-23 in the final period to secure the win.

Orlando All-Star center Dwight Howard was held to 10 points, but guard Jameer Nelson had 22, including 12 in the final seven minutes.

"It was a playoff atmosphere," said forward Grant Hill, who added 12. "I think New Jersey made it difficult - they really swarmed Dwight, tried to take away things we normally want to do."

The win was Orlando's third in five games, a stretch that includes wins over Northwest Division-leading Utah and a Miami club that had won its previous nine games.

While the Magic are showing signs of a playoff surge, the Knicks have lost five of six and are struggling to remain in contention. During their current three-game skid, they are averaging only 77.0 points per game - 21.2 below their season average.

Injuries have been a major factor in New York's lack of offense. Three of the Knicks' top five scorers have missed significant time this month.

Jamal Crawford has been sidelined for the last 11 games with an ankle injury that's expected to end his season. Quentin Richardson has missed five straight contests with a sore back, and David Lee has played in only one of the Knicks' last 13 games due to a sprained right ankle.

"Some of the things that have occurred to us injury-wise is starting to take its toll a little bit and its showing up on the offensive side of the ball," coach Isiah Thomas said. "Defensively we still scrap like hell but we're just finding it very tough to score. That's what happens when you lose these guys for this long a period. We'll keep fighting, keep battling and keep trying to figure it out. We'll try to figure out a way to manufacture some points."

The Knicks recorded their lowest point total of the season in their 90-68 loss to Cleveland on Friday. They had only 30 points in the second half and 12 in the fourth quarter.

"You never want to blame it on injuries but you have to be real about the situation," said center Eddy Curry, one of only two Knicks to reach double digits in points Friday with 27. "It seems at this point we have to go out there and play a perfect game in order to win.

"It's tough. You take our big pieces away. We're going in there night after night and trying to fight and get wins and scrapping and keep coming up short."

Still, the Knicks are hoping to take advantage of a weak Eastern Conference and like the Magic, sneak into the playoffs despite a sub-.500 record.

"We're not desperate at all because we know we still have a chance if we buckle down and run our stuff and try to win some games," Curry said.

To take advantage of that chance, the Knicks will need to improve at home, where they've lost four of five since a season-high seven-game win streak at Madison Square Garden.

Orlando, meanwhile, has lost six of its last seven road games to fall to 11-24 away from home.

New York has won the first two games of the season series heading into Monday's finale. Curry had 20 points on 8-of-9 shooting to lead the Knicks to a 100-94 win in the last meeting Feb. 20 at MSG.


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