The Vibes Are Immaculate
New York enters the All-Star break on the highest of notes. Where can they go from here?
Good morning! Talk about a game that will have every Knicks fan feeling like a million bucks for the next nine days. Dare I say: we’ve eared it.
Game Recap: Knicks 122, Hawks 101
⌚️30 Seconds or Less: This one started as a laugher and ended as a laugher, but in between was anything but.
Storming out of the gate behind a hot-shooting Julius Randle, New York raced to a 20-point first quarter lead that they ultimately extended to 22 at the break. After halftime though, the Hawks put whatever pride they had left on the line and cut the deficit to 13 with eight minutes to go in the third. This was once again a ball game.
Except it was never really a ball game, because despite some nervous moments, the Knicks never let Atlanta get closer than 11. The game of tug of war continued until midway through the fourth, when a Jalen Brunson and-one finally pushed the lead back over 20, and then a three off his fingertips served as the nail in the coffin a few minutes later.
Thanks to a night full of stout perimeter defense and strong rim protection, New York dances into the break a season-high six games over .500.
🏈 Moving the Goalposts? Just under one month ago, on the night Mitchell Robinson went down with a fractured thumb in a loss to the Wizards, the Knicks seemed like a team in trouble.
On one hand, they still had a respectable record of 25-21, and that was with two straight defeats. They had been playing well - far better than most people outside of New York seemed to recognize. Even including that Washington game, they were tied for third in the NBA in wins over the previous six and a half weeks, with a top-five offense, the second-ranked defense, and a net rating that trailed only the Memphis Grizzlies in that span. They were rolling.
And yet, in just one night without Robinson, we saw how drastic the defensive drop off could be. It was enough that after Wiz game, I spoke openly on the postgame livestream about whether getting to the All-Star break with a .500 record was a worthy goal. That would have required them to go just 5-9 from that point forward, but after two more losses to the Hawks and Raptors in which they gave up 264 total points, the initial post-Robinson fears seemed even more warranted. A team that either won or lost close for 19 straight games had not only dropped four in a row, but had lost three straight that weren’t particularly competitive down the stretch.
That’s when, for the second time this season, they faced a very good Cleveland team with their backs up against the wall, and for the second time this season, they responded with a win. That victory started a stretch in which New York has now gone 8-4 over the last three weeks.
It hasn’t been as pretty as their successful run in December and January, with a net rating just outside the top 10 over these dozen game, but perhaps given how their season has gone, that only makes their recent success more impressive. The Knicks have won several close games that might have been losses earlier in the season, and their crunch time execution has taken a noticeable step up. Those tight victories - six W’s by a total margin of 28 - have given way to two wins over arguably their two biggest rivals by a total of 39 points. First they figured out how to win nail-bitters, and now they seem to have learned how to turn nail-bitters into blowouts.
It has led us to this point: more than two-thirds of the way through the season, in position to make the playoffs without the need for the pesky play-in tournament:
The schedule will not get any easier. According to Tankathon, they have the eighth toughest remaining slate, although the two teams they are now competing with for playoff positioning - Brooklyn and Miami- are in a virtual tie with New York at 7th and 9th hardest, respectively.
It all begs the question: have the goals now changed? Three weeks ago, this didn’t seem like a team that could defend at a high enough level to overcome their occasional offensive droughts. Now, they’ve righted the ship enough to calm those fears, thanks in large part to a 15th ranked defense over these last dozen games, and a revitalized Isaiah Hartenstein being the guy we thought the Knicks signed this summer. A bevy of two-way wings, including new addition Josh Hart, certainly doesn’t hurt either.
But of course, the real conversation-changer is the little guy with the big heart and and even bigger game to go with it.
Damn is right.
That’s the only proper response left to what Jalen Brunson is doing right now. He had 28 last night, and it brought down his scoring average over the previous six weeks.
Every team that wants to be reckoned with has to have, in the plainest of terms, a guy. Julius Randle, a worthy and deserving 2023 NBA All-Star, has been a bear for opponents to deal with all season long. He is also a player that comes with limitations. We first came to grips with those limits against these same Hawks a year and a half ago, and since them, have come to accept and value Julius for what he is rather than harping on what he is not.
But if Randle was the one leading this charge, there would be far more skepticism than currently exists. And maybe, even with Brunson at the helm, there is still a healthy amount of doubt in the air. That’s fine. He’s thrived on dismissiveness since before he got to Villanova. The chip on his shoulder only continues to increase in size, with the All-Star slight only adding to the load.
Behind this emerging star, it feels like the Knicks can play with anybody. According to Brunson himself after this game, they still have room to improve.
And, oh yes, the vibes…they are immaculate:
A good place to be, indeed.
With maybe an even better place yet to come.
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