The Knicks are rolling nine-deep with players who can step up on any given night. That could prove critical in the playoffs.
The New York Knicks seemed down and out, both in the game and for the season, after dropping a game to the Dallas Mavericks at the Garden.
They lost by 22 points, and simply looked broken.
The very next game they had was against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs, who have been a consistent top-four team in the Eastern Conference, came into an arena full of fans hungry for any sign of life from their Knicks.
Luckily for them, New York showed up in a big way. They won that next game with excellent defense and by locking up much of Cleveland’s starting unit outside of Donovan Mitchell. That launched them into an eight-game win streak in December. It finally felt like the team clicked, as if they had become the hive mind that head coach Tom Thibodeau was begging them to be for the entire season up to that point.
In the Knicks’ double-overtime thriller over the Boston Celtics on Sunday night, their second win over last year’s Eastern Conference champions and their ninth in a row, that hive mind was on full display even in the absence of their arguably best player in Jalen Brunson. For those reasons, New York is finally gaining some traction as a bonafide threat in the East as playoff time rapidly approaches.
Several outlets are now listing New York atop their power rankings alongside company like the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets and Celtics. They have some big wins against the Celtics and 76ers and have had some hard-fought games against Milwaukee. This moment in time for the Knicks, which has seen them piece together nine wins in a row against some strong competition in the Eastern Conference, is just a reflection of what has been built since the drafting of RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin, Quentin Grimes and the signings of Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson. It’s a reflection, too, of trades that have now landed them one of their most active hustle players in Josh Hart. With his mid-season addition, head coach Tom Thibodeau has been able to run out a successfully shortened rotation over this span of wins.
Outside of Brunson or Randle, no one person on the roster is not typically expected to put up 30-plus points per game or to draw the bulk of the attention from opposing defenses the way those two do often. But, their intangibles are often what helps swing games in New York’s favor, and this is especially true of the defense provided by Robinson, Quickley, Grimes, and Hart.
Robinson, of course, is the Knicks’ anchor. He floats around the paint like a shark, hunting down ball handlers attempting, and often failing, to use screens to drive into the paint and past Robinson. Robinson has also proven to be a boost for the Knicks on offense, with the team boasting a +4.9 offensive rating when he’s playing. His rebounding has been stellar so far this season, and barring the hand injury that sidelined him for several weeks, he likely would have continued to ascend the rankings of centers across the league with his ability to crash the boards and get so many second-chance opportunities for the Knicks.
TATUM BLOCKED BY ROBINSON. @23savage____ pic.twitter.com/w3HilLdP5v— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) February 28, 2023
If Robinson is the anchor, then Quickley and Grimes are the rudders for the Knicks’ defense. Both are great point-of-attack defenders and absolute hounds getting through screens. Quickley has bucked his pre-draft expectations and now truly excels on defense, transforming himself into a menace off the bench with his high-energy plays and ability to block shots from behind, get steals, and rebound.
Man what a block from IQ here man. So many guards should be watching how he defends off-ball pic.twitter.com/doxbBK3iFb— Tyrese Haliburton 是我的爸爸🏀 (@JamseBu9) March 6, 2023
Grimes, on the other hand, has been solid for New York against starting units. He has become a bit of an afterthought, though, as Quickley and Hart have really stolen the show in terms of defense, but he is still lengthy enough and strong enough to match up with any team’s lethal shooter.
Speaking of matching up with an opposing teams’ best, Barrett is another defender who is often given the assignment of guarding some truly talented shooters. Players like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were met by Barrett’s defense on Sunday night, and even if they were able to get away from him, they were met with the fervor of Quickley. If they even managed to slip by him, they had to look out for another lurking threat in Hart, who has been averaging 1.2 steals per game with the Knicks and seems to have a cape on the floor as he zips from assignment to assignment.
Other bench players who have excelled at key points this season include Isaiah Hartenstein, who backed Robinson up admirably after suffering his injury, and the occasional appearance from Jericho Sims and Deuce McBride. They, too, are pivotal to the Knicks’ depth and success as they venture into the doldrums that are the playoffs against such a strong Eastern Conference.
All of these factors alleviate a huge amount of expectations on Randle. He has been nothing short of stellar this season, averaging 25.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game and securing his second All-Star nod with New York. Last year, it was obvious that without a point guard starting for the Knicks, he was expected to play as point forward. He is a good passer, but he was expected to be a Swiss army knife alongside a lackluster roster. This year, he has been much more methodical with his isolation plays and when he wants to involve another teammate. In their victory over the Celtics, he was happy to let Quickley take the wheel, and he ended up being the Knicks’ highest scorer while playing 55 minutes as their point guard. In the face of momentary adversity during the game after being hit with a technical foul, he remained calm. In a similar situation last season, you would be hard-pressed not to find Randle ejected or simply visibly frustrated on the floor, bringing everyone’s level of play down along with him. He has seen the light alongside Brunson, and is a much more involved teammate.
Overall, the play from this crew has propelled the Knicks to fifth in offensive rating, seventh in net rating, and 14th in defensive rating. The latter should slowly but surely increase with the return of Robinson to the rotation and with more minutes from Quickley and Hart in the potential absence of Brunson with a foot injury. Looking back to the last exciting season that New York played, back in 2012-13 when I was just 16 years old and without a fully formed frontal lobe that could actually appreciate the greatness that was that 2 seed team, they had a roster just as deep. No, they were unable to truly capitalize on not only Carmelo Anthony’s peak but an equal foe in the Indiana Pacers meeting them in the semifinals, but they had some real bench talent that simply did not materialize in the playoffs.
Do the Knicks run the risk of this happening again during this dream run? Perhaps. This is a very young team, with an average age of 25. Most have not experienced a deep playoff push, with the exception of Brunson who went to the Western Conference Finals with the Dallas Mavericks last season. Those on the team who experienced the gentleman’s sweep by the Atlanta Hawks back in 2021-22 are better than they were in that series and are surrounded by a much more balanced team. But, of course, it’s hard to say how they will fare this season. Being led by players like Randle and Brunson, though, give fans much to be hopeful about as we enter the final days of the regular season and begin to look ahead at the playoff picture come April.
Josh Hart strips Tatum resulting in some Julius free throws pic.twitter.com/S5bDfqgMvu— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) February 28, 2023
»Read: The Knicks’ End-of-Season Outlook
»Read: The Knicks (Finally) Have a Tom Thibodeau Team