It's All Happening
Soak it in.
It’s 1:35 in the morning, and as I sit down to write today’s special (second consecutive!) weekend edition of the Knicks Film School Newsletter, I have to pause and reflect, if only for a moment.
The game itself - a 117-109 victory in Dallas in which the Knicks announced to the NBA world that they don’t shine shoes anymore - ended well over an hour ago. But I’m only sitting down to write now because since a quarter after midnight here on the east coast, I’ve been enjoying this win with fans from all over the globe thanks to the magic of YouTube Live.
Vegas. London. Brazil. Sydney. Greece. Tunisia. Anywhere but Latvia. All over the globe, people who have continued to support this team through thick and mostly thin were reveling in the fact that, yes, we are here.
All season long, we haven’t quite known where to place ourselves on the NBA map. We knew we were in a better place than last season, but the journey from there to basketball respectability was as long as anyone’s in the league. As I wrote yesterday, no team started this season with longer odds, and no one had more prods and pokes and jabs and jokes made at their expense.
Thibodeau? Maybe he’ll take a bottom-one roster and make it competitive on some nights. Randle? Hopefully he’ll play well enough to convince some team to willingly take on the last year of his deal. RJ? He’s no Tyler Herro, but then again, who amongst us really is?
A fun preseason and a 5-3 start had us all believing that, hey, maybe, just maybe, this team would have a respectable year. Might even stick in the play-in race ‘till April or May.
Nope. Five straight losses ended those talks real quick. A loss to an undermanned Cleveland squad left us with the 25th ranked net rating in the league and a reminder that Knicks fans aren’t allowed to have nice things.
The next game they played was against Boston on a Sunday. They won by 30 on an afternoon when they hit everything and the Celtics hit nothing.
That was three months ago to the day. Starting with that game, the Knicks - the New York Effin’ KNICKS - are tied for the 8th most wins in basketball with 25, one more than the team they beat last night and one fewer than the team that, if the season ended today, they’d face in the first round of the playoffs.
That team, the Milwaukee Bucks, is a legitimate title contender. The Bucks join a group that includes the Nets and Sixers in the East and the Jazz, Suns, Clippers and, until Jamal Murray went down this week, the Nuggets in the West as teams who could win it all.
And those seven teams are the only ones with a better net rating or more wins than these Knicks since January 17. The Lakers get a pass because of injuries, but still…a universe where New York has a better three-month stretch than the defending champs? And we get to live in? What sorcery is this.
But here we are, after the best win of this season and maybe in any season since 2012-13. That year started off with a bang - a 20-point-win in Miami, a 6-0 start, the title of last undefeated team in the league, and a march to a two-seed - but it never had the sort of culminating moment like we got last night.
This win - New York’s fifth straight, the longest streak since 2014 (but really, the longest meaningful streak since that ‘12-13 season, because New York was already out of it when they won eight straight in Mike Woodson’s final days as coach) - was one achieved by a team that looked nothing like the one we saw 10 days ago.
That team was two games under .500 and losers of five of six, including three by two points or less. One of those losses came at the hands of these Mavericks, who got down by 13 in the Garden and then gave us our fuckin’ shine box, outscoring the Knicks 68-42 over the final 31 minutes. It was the most recent reminder that when push came to shove, this team would still be undone by its inability to put the ball in the basket when an opponent bore down and actually defended.
Since that night, Thibodeau’s crew has the second best net rating in the league and a top-10 offense. Suddenly, the notion that they are a team worthy of attention as more than just play-in fodder doesn’t seem so absurd.
The credit starts with Julius Randle. As Tommy Beer pointed out last night, Randle became just the 5th player ever to have a game with 44 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, 6 made 3-pointers, 1 steal and 1 block, joining Michael Jordan, Kevin Durant, Vince Carter and James Harden. His playmaking remains the best and most important part of his progression this season:
More impressive to me is the fact that Randle is the first player to have 40 points and five dimes in leading a winning Knicks team to a victory over an opponent who was also over .500 since Walt Frazier in November of 1973, when he led the defending champs to a W over the hated Lakers. I’m sure that game had some juice to it. I’m not sure if it had as much juice as last night.
But in coming out and scoring the first 13 Knick points, Randle went up to each of his teammates, offered them a boost, and helped them onto his shoulders. On this evening at least, he would carry them most of the way home.
Every one of his 35 points over the first three quarters were big, but at the start of the fourth, when the lead was just four and Randle was on the bench for a breather having already played 33 of a possible 36 minutes, the Knicks needed someone else to step up.
You knew whose moment this needed to be:
More would follow…a driving up-and-under, a right corner three, a tip-in on his own miss…all good looks for a player who is now shooting 58 percent from the field and 56 percent from deep in fourth quarters since the All-Star break.
The only players who have made more fourth quarter shots at a higher clip in that time frame are Zion and Montrelz Harrell; the only one hitting threes at a better rate is the likely MVP, Nikola Jokic. That is where we are with this player, this closer. Another 13 points in the final frame. At 20. What a world.
Of course, every closer needs a moment when he shuts the door, and RJ Barrett had his. Might as well do it in the grill of the guy you essentially replaced:
But this win wasn’t just about Randle and RJ, even though they accounted for more than half the points. It was as much a team effort as any win they have had this season.
The supporting cast was led by Derrick Rose, who had 15 & 5 and looks like he’s finally over the bout with COVID-19 that forced him to miss nearly a month. Taj Gibson, Rose’s teammate thrice-over, played only 16 minutes but was a huge part of the Knicks swarming defense that looked as locked in as it has all year. To that end, Reggie Bullock may have only shot 4-of-10, but his ability to plague and pester Luka Doncic all night long, limiting him to just seven made field goals, was the unsung MVP performance of the evening.
And then of course there was Nerlens Noel with the play of the evening - maybe the play of the year - that Thibodeau admitted afterwards got his team fired up and kept the momentum strong:
Strike a pose:
And of course, there was Frank, coming in thanks to a situation - a situation, folks…we got a situation over here!!! - that required his very unique set of skills. Four minutes of hounding defense, a made triple and a sweet drive was all we got, but it was the cherry on top of this perfect evening - catnip for those of us who never got off the island.
You can grumble at Obi and Quickley playing 13 minutes combined, but I won’t. Not today. I won’t complain about a blessed thing after this night, least of all something that Tom Thibodeau, this lord of lords, decided to do.
30 wins. The Knicks have 30 wins. With 15 games left. If you told me before the season that they’d finish 30-42, I’d have asked for a dotted line I could sign on. Any sane Knick fan would have.
But here we are: 6th place in the East, a half game back of Atlanta and Boston, the two teams tied for fourth. New York already owns the tiebreaker over the Hawks. They’ll have a chance to get it over the Celtics on the last day of the season, when who knows what will be at stake.
We’re now less than a month away from that conclusion, but for the first time in what seems like forever, the season will not end on that date. The Knicks will not be one of the 10 teams to board a plane to Cancun the evening of May 16. They will play on.
In what capacity, and for how long, we don’t yet know. But we do know this: we’ll be watching. Intently. And with the belief that this team can win any game against any team on any given night, because that’s exactly what they just did.
These are the times we waited for. Enjoy it.
Even if the best may be yet to come.
That’s it for today! If you enjoy this newsletter and like the Mets, don’t forget to subscribe for free to JB’s Metropolitan. See everyone soon! #BlackLivesMatter