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A New High
In reaching a season-high eight games over .500, the Knicks are proving to be more than just a plucky underdog.
Good morning! Has their been a better morning? Like, ever? I know it’s Monday, but that’s how good the vibes are right now.
Last night, Jeremy and I were recording today’s KFS podcast and I raised the issues of whether this is the best we’ve felt about the Knicks since the 2012-13 season, or possibly even farther back than that. The #WeHere season deserves mention, as does Linsanity of course. But there’s something about this assemblage of players and the way they’re going about their business that makes what we’re watching feel very special.
We’ll see how long they can keep it going with a matchup against the best team in the NBA tonight.
Friday: Knicks 115, Wizards 109
This game was a roller coaster. After I wrote on Friday that the Knicks better not take the Wizards lightly, the Knicks took the Wizards lightly out of the gate. By the time Washington hit their 11th triple in 16 attempts from long range, New York found themselves down 55-36 with more than six minutes to go in the second quarter. From that point forward though, the Knicks started to defend like they meant it, and with an assist from Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle decided that New York was not going to lose this game. Randle dominated from the late-second quarter on, and on his shoulders, the Knicks emerged from a back and forth final frame with a victory.
Saturday: Knicks 128, Pelicans 106
On a night the Garden payed homage to the 1973 NBA Champions, the current Knicks treated the Pelicans like those title teams treated so many unworthy opponents. New York rode - who else? - Julius Randle to a 42-point first quarter in which they briefly took a 20-point lead. From there, the home team mostly coasted behind a significant 3-point shooting disparity (the Knicks were 13-of-26 from deep at halftime while New Orleans was 2-of-19) and utter dominance on the boards (an eventual 54-39 advantage). Things briefly got too close for comfort late in the third when the Pels cut the lead to 15, but nine straight Knick points by the wing combo of RJ Barrett & Josh Hart put an end to any notions of a comeback, and New York finished off the back-to-back in style.
📸Play of the Weekend: I’ve watched it at least a dozen times and I still don’t know how he made it.
I don’t know if it was the fact that Brunson almost fell down on the play, that he had missed his prior six shots, or that he managed to toss it up, off the glass, over the outstretched arms of a leaping Kristaps Porzingis, but out of all of his carny-esque trick shots this season, this might be the most impressive. It was certainly among the most consequential, coming in a tie game with under a minute to go.
And yet…I couldn’t let this newsletter go by without recognizing another notable moment from a different Villanova alum in the same game…
📸Play of the Weekend (Josh Hart edition): The path to every Knick fan’s heart is paved with floor burns, and Josh Hart knows it:
It’s not that this sealed the game or anything, but it was so symbolic of this team’s turnaround in recent weeks. They went from a group that seemed intent on finding ways to lose to now coming up with any play necessary to secure a win.
Speaking of wins…
📈 Trending Up: …New York has now won five in a row - and counting. They’ll face the 44-17 Celtics tonight, and while their third winning streak of at least four games this season may come to an end, there’s no denying that the Knicks are a team to be reckoned with. Some numbers for your consideration:
8 games over .500, tied with the Nets for 5th in the East and 8th in the league
A plus-2.5 net rating, in a virtual tie with the Kings for 7th overall
The 6th ranked offense in basketball (despite the 23rd ranked eFG%)
Since going to a nine-man rotation on December 4: 4th best record at 25-14, 2nd best net rating, 4th ranked offense, 9th ranked defense
These are, flatly, the numbers of an elite team, and one you’d consider a contender just by looking at their resume. The Knicks aren’t that (at least I don’t think they are, but who the hell knows at this point).
What they are, however, is a team that never, ever gets blown out, which is how the numbers can look so good despite a comparatively pedestrian record. One might even say that being in every game, every night is there identity, which brings me to…
As a creep ever so steadily towards May and the start of my fifth decade on planet earth, I’ve been spending a lot of time recently wishing that I was younger.
(I know this sentiment may seem ridiculous to those of you who have a few years on me, but last week, one of my many creaky joints woke my youngest as I was walking away from her crib, so hopefully you can forgive my complaining. And to those of you who are still young and without child: stop reading and go do something fun. Now. And then report back with details.)
One of the few exceptions to my pining for the fountain of youth: when the topic of the Knicks championship teams comes up, I actually wish I was a little bit older. And if not old enough to have watched the first title team, at least old enough to have seen the second. I’ve heard so much about them, and yet so few highlights remain. Never having seen them live makes me jealous of all fans in their mid-50’s or above.
That roster was commemorated at halftime on Saturday night, or at least, those who are left and were able to make it. It’s been 50 years since the 1973 championship – a long enough period of time for descriptions of the group to have been reduced mostly to buzzwords and general descriptions, even by those who were on it.
They were selfless. They sacrificed. They played for each other. They made the right play – the winning play. They adjusted their individual games for the betterment of the whole.
And oh yeah: they were really, really talented:
While videos like this one give me a decent enough idea of what it must have been like to watch them play, it doesn’t come close to having seen them for myself. I can, however, recall the 90’s teams first hand, even if, like the 70’s group, trying to aptly describe them becomes harder and harder as the years go by. Saying they were the most physical team in the league doesn’t do them justice; only photos of opposing players’ black and blues could do that.
The style of play that produced those sorts of battle scars has long been litigated out of the league, but that doesn’t mean physicality isn’t alive and well in the NBA. That brings us to the current crop of Knicks, who honored their predecessors by running up a 20-point lead before the end of the first quarter against the Pelicans.
Unlike the ’73 team, one that not only featured six Hall-of-Famers but an even more astounding five players who made the NBA’s all-time top-75 list, the 2022-23 New York Knicks are operating at a significant talent deficit.
That’s not to say that they’re merely a bunch of try hards, but when compared to the ’73 Knicks, or even the ‘90’s teams that were built around an all-time great, the discrepancy is clear. Even the 2012-13 squad, which is quickly becoming this group’s only competition for the title of Best Post-2000 Knicks Team, had two top-75’ers, albeit one well past his prime.
The current roster, meanwhile, has one former MVP currently out of the rotation, one two-time All-Star playing the best basketball of his life (more on that below), one shoulda-been-an-All-Star who will probably make a team or two someday, and a cast of role players, all of which played those roles to perfection on Saturday night. The big names aren’t there, but that makes their performance all the more impressive - and imposing.
In a league built on speed and skill, New York is bludgeoning opposing teams into submission, one bully-ball post move at a time. You don’t play these Knicks; you persevere them. Even for more talented teams, they are a marathon. Glory awaits at the end of the road - all you have to do it make it to the end of 26.2 miles still standing. And lest you hope for a soft spot in the armor, following the Josh Hart trade and with RJ Barrett playing like he has these last two games, good luck finding one. Everyone contributes, and no one is a weak link.
It has made for a special brew of late.
In this sense, they are in many ways a perfect marriage between the ‘69 & ‘73 title teams and the 90’s marauders. Tough as nails, with a total team effort, all in one package. They do not know how to quit, or at least not since the Dallas game that turned around their season nearly three months ago. They are a team every New Yorker can be proud of. You might beat me today, but you won’t forget the experience, I’ll make sure of that.
Except here’s the thing: they’ve been the ones doing the beating an awful lot lately. Tonight, they get maybe their best test yet – a home date with a fully healthy Celtics team that is rolling. We’ve not yet gotten to the point of expecting a win, but no one who has watched this group perform over the last three months is penciling in a loss either.
Win or lose, we know we’ll see a fight to the end. That’s who these Knicks are, more than anything. Their defining characteristic is a lack of quit. The catch phrase we’ll use to define them if, 50 years from now, they’re lucky enough to join the pantheon of the great teams in franchise history: They were never out of a game.
The ultimate sign of respect for the ultimate basketball team.
💫 Stars of the Weekend 💫
⭐️ Immanuel Quickley: Death, taxes, and IQ helping the Knicks win games.
It was something of an afterthought with Randle’s big night, but Quick was New York’s second leading scorer on Friday evening with 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting, including 3-for-6 from downtown. He followed that up with a less imperative 13 points on 10 shots, but it all gets added to a blossoming 6th Man of the Year campaign that should be gaining steam.
At +219, Quick is now one of four Knicks in the top-50 of overall plus/minus in the league this season. That figure puts IQ 21st in the NBA, with Josh Hart (+175) in 33rd, Mitch (+170) in 34th, and Julius Randle (+146) in 49th.
⭐️ ⭐️ RJ Barrett: Be a star in your role.
Tom Thibodeau certainly isn’t the first coach to use the term, but he’s said it, often in conjunction with “you don’t have to shoot well to play well.” The sentiments of both are aligned: big names with big box score numbers may get the lion’s share of attention, but there are myriad ways that every player can help their team win.
Far too often this season, RJ Barrett hasn’t come through in that department. On a pre-All-Star episode of the Lowe Post, Zach called out RJ for averaging the quietest 20 points in the league. As harsh as that sounds, anyone who has watched him this year would find it hard to disagree1.
The guy that emerged from the All-Star break though? He bears little resemblance to wing who would often frustrate with empty calorie performances, and it has been the little things that have really stood out.
On this play, right out of the gate from halftime, RJ started the possession off with a nice corner closeout, but what really caught my eye was the rebound. Barrett went up and snatched that thing, even as Josh Richardson had notions of grabbing his own miss.
This was just one example of several where we saw a different energy from RJ, starting with a really strong defensive performance against Washington on Friday, and continuing with an even better all around game on Saturday night. The stat line was good - 25 points on just 13 shots, plus seven assists and four rebounds - but the tip-to-buzzer effort was even better.
Like, can the Knicks get this defensive version of Barrett for 30 minutes a night over the remainder of the season? If they do, New York might just mess around and take a playoff series after all.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Julius Randle: It’s hard to describe the transformation in words.
One minute, Julius Randle was a mild mannered power forward for the New York Knicks. The next, he had transformed into an unstoppable beast, dead set on annihilating anything or anyone who dared to get in his way.
Even looking back at Friday’s highlights from after the change, it doesn’t do justice to the metamorphosis that occurred:
Wait, no…that’s not Julius. It’s the bear from Cocaine Bear, which was also unleashed on the world Friday night.
You can see how I got confused though:
Spot the difference, I dare you. Kyle Kuzma sure couldn’t.
Among the lessons learned in Washington, Kuzma now knows better than to wake a hibernating man-eater.
That’s exactly what Kuz did when he pulled out the “too small” gesture following a made basket over his former Laker teammate to make the score 62-48 Wizards. New York had already cut into the Washington lead with a 10-0 run after the lead had ballooned to 19, but the home team was still firmly in control.
That’s when Randle’s claws emerged. The beast was the captain now.
Julius proceeded to score 11 points in the final two and a half minutes of the first half, and then 16 seconds into the third quarter, nailed a three to cut the lead to one. Any command of this game that Washington once had had been ripped to shreds. Two more Knick buckets put the finishing touches on a 23-point turnaround that took just seven minutes of game time.
And Randle, in all his snarling glory, was at the heart of it.
He wasn’t done. After the Wizards rallied to regain a six-point advantage late in the third, it was Randle who scored five of the next seven points to give New York back the lead. Then, after Bradley Beal put Washington up by one with under five to go, Julius nailed consecutive step-back triples to put the Knicks back in command. After Randle hit two massive free throws with 1:16 left to regain a 3-point advantage for his team, he found himself with the ball in his hands for one final key possession, with New York up two and time winding down. With a few second difference between the shot and game clock, Washington didn’t have to foul, and even if they did, one missed free throw would have kept it a one-possession game.
That’s when Julius came up with his biggest assist of the night, finding Mitchell Robinson open under the hoop for the game-sealing basket.
With 46 points already in the bag, New York’s two-time All-Star had every right to go for a new career high. He made the right play instead.
Among all the storylines of this Knicks season, Randle’s transformation from last season’s sulking party-crasher into a new and improved version of the All-NBA player we marveled at two years ago has to be the most unexpected. That’s because, for as difficult as it is to make a physical recovery from injury or rediscover a broken jumper, returning from the mental abyss requires a level of introspection difficult for any human being, let alone someone who has had their praises sung since grade school.
But as Julius said after this game, “my mental is everything for me,” and as Jake Fischer reported late last week, it took a summer of searching for Randle to regain his joy for the game.
On Friday night in Washington, it showed, perhaps more than any night this season.
A career unlike any other continues to amaze.
🏙 Game Night 🏙
When: 7:30 pm
Weiss & Rosenbloom Personal Injury Report: Everyone is good to go for the Knicks, while Jaylen Brown is out for personal reasons.
Halftime Zoom: I’m back! Click here to enter.
A piece of data to back up Zach’s point: RJ was the only player in the league before the All-Star break averaging over 18 points per game who also had a negative plus/minus differential despite playing for a team that was above .500 in games they appeared in. His pre-ASG plus/minus was minus-1.0.