Between Julius Randle’s redemption season to Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart’s seamless additions, it’s hard to pin down the best part of the New York Knicks’ improbable rise this season.
Pegged to be a 38.5-win team, the 36-27 Knicks are just three more wins away from surpassing that with still 19 games to play. FiveThirtyEight‘s latest projection has the Knicks finishing with a 45-37 record as the fifth seed in the East.
The fourth seed, currently occupied by the Knicks summer fling, Donovan Mithell, and his 39-25 Cleveland Cavaliers, is still within reach.
“It’s coming together for the Knicks,” ESPN writer and analyst Zach Lowe said after the Knicks stunned the Boston Celtics. “They are rock solid one to nine and they can go 10 deep if they need to. They know exactly who they are, what their identity is, what everyone’s role is.”
“And I also don’t think they’ll fall into the trap they did two years ago against Atlanta in the playoffs, where it’s just Julius Randle isolating and just praying that they can make something happen. Not with Jalen Brunson there. They have too many options now, and they just feel like a team to me, that’s clicking, that knows exactly who they are and what they want to get out of every possession.”
So who exactly are these Knicks?
Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon offered his thoughts after they got manhandled at the Garden last Monday night.
“Defensively, they’re a team that runs off the line, and they force you to take tough threes or put the ball on the ground and get inside, and then their bigs are waiting at the rim, so they force you to take midrange shots,” Brogdon said. “So, they stick to their game plan.”
That game plan worked well against the erstwhile leader Celtics, who missed 31 of 42 three-point attempts. Their scoring leader, Jayson Tatum, was held to 14 points, more than 50 percent below his 30-point average. His frustration boiled over in the fourth quarter which led to his ejection.
New York coach Tom Thibodeau had stuck to his analytically-sound game plan — shoot more layups, shoot more 3s, and force tough 3s on the other end, especially from the corner, get to the line, protect the paint, and rebound well.
Since Thibodeau shortened his rotation to nine on Dec. 4, the Knicks have the fourth-best record (26-14) in the league behind title contenders Denver, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Boston.
During this span, the Knicks are no. 2 in drives (and no. 5 in field goals made off drives), no. 10 in made 3s, no. 2 in opponent’s 3-point field goal percentage, no. 6 in free throw attempts, no.3 in opponent field goal percentage from less than 5 feet, and no. 1 in holding opponents’ points in the paint, and no. 2 in rebounding and offensive rebounds.
The Knicks are exactly playing how Thibodeau wants them to be — strong on both ends of the floor. They’re playing by the numbers, and the only way they can be beaten is for their opponents to shoot the lights out and make midrange shots — a tough act in a seven-game series.
The Knicks have taken the league on notice.
“Don’t sleep on the Knicks,” Lowe said. “They’re pretty damn good.”
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