But on Saturday, the avid fans of the New York Knicks danced in the streets of Manhattan to celebrate two months of basketball that still felt too good to be true. The Knicks kind of start off with a three-game winning streak and a record of 18-17 into March, good enough for the Eastern Conference number 4. In contrast, they were between 18 and 42 years old a year ago – a game from the basement of the East – and only started recording the pieces after they fired their coach and president. Rather than going through another aimless rebuilding campaign, the Knicks are above .500 for the third time in 20 years after 35 games and threaten to hit the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Sharp turnarounds like these are usually driven by superstar acquisitions, but the Knicks barely peeked at them in the free hand. They spent more than nine months between games because they weren’t invited to the Disney World bubble, and their biggest off-season acquisition was Tom Thibodeau, the veteran coach known for his rugged intensity.
In fact, Thibodeau’s fingerprints can be seen all over New York. This has long been his identity: inconspicuous, demanding, defensive and obsessed with the here and now. After the Knicks cleared away the Detroit Pistons on Sunday for their seventh win in their last nine games, Thibodeau stuck to his familiar script, whether it was after Center Nerlens Noel’s most recent game or his team’s performance relative to the Story was asked.
“First of all, I’m never happy. Second, I always think we can do better, ”said Thibodeau. “It is a proud organization. I was here in the nineties. That has nothing to do today. Just as I don’t want us to look ahead, I don’t want us to look backwards. Our focus must be exactly on what is ahead of us. “
New York’s formula for success can be traced back to its defense, which improved from 23rd to second place last season. Thibodeau made a name for himself screaming himself hoarse while evoking maximum effort and aggressiveness on the defensive, and he did so this season despite juggling a squad full of youth and journeymen.
Offensively, the Knicks were the Julius Randle Show. The 26-year-old forward averaged 23.4 points, 10.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists – all career highs – and landed his first all-star selection. Much like Jimmy Butler, Thibodeau’s previous centerpiece in Chicago and Minnesota, Randle has reached new heights by facing a heavier workload, playing every game and leading the league in minutes.
“I pride myself on being long-lived and being available to my team every night,” said Randle on Sunday. “That’s what summer training is for, to run, lift weights and push yourself every day when you don’t feel like doing it. Honestly, that’s the easy part. “
In its seventh season, Randle has evolved into a more refined playmaker and more efficient goal threat. At previous stops with the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans, his offensive game relied heavily on hard drives in traffic that could get wild or lead to contested shots and mid-range jumpers. With experience, Randle has chosen his seats more carefully and learned to extend the defense with an improved outside shot. He shoots 41.9 percent from a distance and has scored more three-points in 35 games than in his first three seasons combined.
“Move like a Guardian and finish like a big one,” Randle said when asked about his offensive development. “I know how to get to my seats, and when the three of them are there I’ll take it.”
Randle’s most important running mate was RJ Barrett, a goalscorer who was more stable in his sophomore season. Barrett often looked lost and overwhelmed as a freshman, and the 20-year-old’s progress remains central to New York’s long-term hopes. The same applies to Immanuel Quickley, a 21-year-old security guard who, after being selected, made it into the all-rookie category with the 25th election in the draft. Since there is a lack of headliners in this year’s class of free agencies, Thibodeau has to pass this prospect on for the foreseeable future.
There are many ways the momentum could shift against the Knicks in the coming months. They are part of a seven-team package separated by fewer than two games in the standings, which means a brief swoon would bring them down. That quagmire includes the Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors, and Boston Celtics, teams with proven playoff cores that can be expected to race down the track. For comparison: New York would only have the ninth-best record in the West – a reflection of how the East was turned upside down and under-challenged.
Additionally, the Knicks have the third heaviest remaining schedule strength in the east, according to Tankathon.com, and will have to survive a six-game trip through the Western Conference in May. Her defense has also kept opponents at 32.5 percent three-pointer shooting, easily the lowest mark in the NBA. As the number of opposing shooters increases, the Knicks’ defensive efficiency will decrease and their 23rd offense, which has been good enough so far, could prove to be more problematic.
Knicks fans shouldn’t concern themselves with the possibility that rain could ruin this parade. Spike Lee told the New York Times this week that he was “optimistic” and that his die-hard colleagues “see hope,” and Randle has dismissed talk that the Knicks are defying expectations. As an exception, New York plays in the spring instead of playing for the summer.
“It’s expected in our locker room,” said Randle. “I’m not really surprised where we are as a team. We have a certain focus that gives us a chance every night. “