Good morning! I’m very excited to share the next two days of newsletters. I’ve been working on this list for a while, and while I’m sure it’ll cause some disagreements, I hope everyone gets where I’m coming from.
Top 10 Games of the Season (Part I)
Before I get into a list that will surely cause many a disagreement among the readers of this newsletter, I want to take a second to speak about its inspiration.
In late January, the Knicks won a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was their first win against a top-notch, mostly healthy opponent since, well…the first time they beat the Cavs back on December 4.
Both wins were similar, not only in the fact that they came against the same team, but in the fact they felt vital in the moment. The first win immediately followed their second half home no-show against the Mavs, while the second ended a four-game slide and showed that the Knicks could, in fact, win a game without a healthy Mitchell Robinson.
That’s where the similarities end though, and, I would argue, are overshadowed by one massive difference. That first Cavs victory felt more like a stay of execution than the start of a magic carpet ride. Thibodeau’s seat went from burning to toasty, and New York got the benefit of a 5-for-29 3-point shooting performance by Cleveland. Nothing, it seemed, had been solved.
From that point forward though, the Knicks kept winning…and winning…and winning. By the time the second Cavs win rolled around, even coming off of four straight L’s, we had already crossed the mental rubicon that this team was, in fact, good.
For that reason, it was much easier to be positive about the second Cleveland win than the one that came 51 days earlier, even though the first win was arguably a bigger deal in the grand scheme of things.
Of course, one night after we collectively touted the second Cleveland victory as the best win of the season, the Knicks won an overtime game in Boston, and then that win immediately had an argument for best win of the season. From that point forward, New York went from a team that couldn’t beat anyone good to a team that started stacking up massive victories, one on top of the next. As Fred Katz wrote for the Athletic in late March after the Knicks got their third victory over the Cavs, while that win surely had an argument for best win of the season, “this is the ninth or 10th time New York has had its best win of the season.”
This concept is, in part, the inspiration for this column. The other part is how much things change when we look back with 20/20 hindsight. Yes, excitement in the moment matters, but when we reflect on this Knicks’ season 10, 20 or 30 years from now, what’s going to stick out the most?
That answer may of course change as circumstances continue to develop. For example, if Immanuel Quickley someday has his number hanging in the rafters at MSG, his double overtime coming out party in Boston will only advance in its lore.
(And it might already be number one.)
With that in mind, let’s get to the list of the 10 Most Meaningful Games of the 2022-23 season. Yes, that’s “games” not “wins.” Losses are going to be included on this list as well. If the goal is figure out which of these memories we’re going to hand down to our kids and grandkids, some losses have to qualify. My general criteria:
Impact: Did the result have meaning within the larger context of the season?
Pivot point? Did the game start or stop a streak or some kind?
Singularity: Did the game feature a rare occurrence that makes it stand out?
Greatness: Did the team or an individual player give us a memorable performance?
Quality: Was the basketball actually good?
One other caveat: I didn’t include the playoffs, because even the least meaningful postseason game arguably carries more weight than the most meaningful regular season contest.
Without further ado…
10. December 4, 2022 - Cavs 81, Knicks 92 - “The Beginning”
If the task here was to rank the most consequential games of New York’s season, there’s an argument that this would be atop the list.
The scene heading in, you’ll surely recall, was dire. One day earlier, the Knicks had suffered a loss so ugly that there were already rumors swirling about Tom Thibodeau’s job status. Ian Begley has since reported that another loss or two would have brought on “significant” changes within the organization. Yaron Weitzman wrote that Thibs himself told confidants he thought he’d soon be out of a job.
And wouldn’t you know it, the star the Knicks nearly traded for in the offseason was coming to the Garden with a pink slip. Whether you were a fan for six decades or six months, you fully expected Donovan Mitchell to come in and drop 50. There would be no need for four horsemen to end Thibodeau’s days; one would be more than enough.
That was the set up. What actually happened was…one of the strangest games we’ll ever see. New York and Cleveland combined for just 173 points, which would wind up as the second lowest total of the NBA season. There were 37 combined turnovers in the game, including an NBA record 14 traveling or carrying violations. The teams also shot a collective 13-of-64 from deep, with the Knicks making just five 3-pointers. That tied their lowest number of made threes in a win since they made four in a victory against the 10-68 Process Sixers in April of 2016.
But win they did, by hook or by crook. As Jalen Brunson said afterwards, “we had to start it off somehow.”
And this was indeed the start of something - eight straight wins before all was said and done. The Knicks had successfully saved their season thanks to Tom Thibodeau’s somewhat bold move to shorten the rotation, leaving his BFF Derrick Rose on the outside looking in. Desperate times called for desperate measures, it seemed, but it worked.
So why isn’t the game much higher? Because unlike everything that follows it on this list, there wasn’t a single positive, memorable thing about the game itself, which was an absolute slog that didn’t convince anyone in the moment that the tide had truly turned. The defense was good and the team played hard, but shipping off this game tape to Springfield, they ain’t.
But if we want to look back at the moment the Knicks did a 180 and turned their season around, look no further than December 4.
9. March 18, 2023 - Knicks 116, Nuggets 110 - “The Pinnacle”
If you ask 10 fans about the high point of this season, you might get 10 different answers.
But thinking back to the vibes after this game - one in which the Knicks beat the fully healthy version of the top team in the West in a game Denver was trying to win - I’m not sure any can top it. The Nuggets had been scuffling, losing four straight before pummeling the sad sack Pistons. A win in New York would have fully righted the ship and ended all the talk that Denver was succumbing to some sort of late season crisis.
And sure enough, they played like their season depended on it for one awe-inspiring stretch in the middle of the game, when they hit 19 of 22 shots and scored 52 points in a span of 13 minutes. These Nuggets, clearly, were in a different class than the Knicks, and we were all silly for ever thinking otherwise.
New York flat out beat eventual West champs and the two-time reigning MVP, and did so by thoroughly taking the game over at both ends. While there are higher games on this list because of the stakes or circumstances, this win more than any other signaled that the Knicks had fully arrived as one of the best teams in the league - one capable of beating any opponent on any given night.
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