The Knicks have the playoffs firmly in their sights and are positioned to make some noise if they get help in some key areas.
Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the Knicks were rolling as the hottest team in the league riding a nine-game win streak. But what seemed like an innocuous precaution to take Jalen Brunson out of the game for tweaking a bothersome foot injury knocked the Knicks back into reality as they proceeded to lose three straight and even momentarily lose the fifth seed. Since then the Knicks have gone 3-1 and have created breathing room in the standing with a solid three-game lead over the Brooklyn Nets and just 10 games left on the remaining on the schedule. So, as things get down to the wire with the Knicks trying to secure a top-five seed for the postseason let’s look at some key factors that they’ll need for the playoff push.
The floor general
It comes as a surprise to anyone but the major key (shoutout to DJ Khaled) to Knicks’ success this season has been their star point guard, the aforementioned Jalen Brunson. His health will determine how far the Knicks will go. He is the most crucial part of the machine; after a few games out of the lineup he’s recently come back into the fold and he didn’t miss a beat, helping the Knicks to an impressive victory over the top seed in the West, the Denver Nuggets. With any luck, the foot issues can be behind him as the Knicks turn their sights to the first round.
If New York clinches a playoff berth with games remaining it would benefit the team, especially Brunson and his nagging foot, to rest whatever meaningless games are left. Coach Tom Thibodeau is notorious for playing his players a lot of minutes so giving the starters a break or even reducing playing time to keep their legs fresh in preparation for the playoffs can only help in the long run. While it is important for all the Knicks to be ready to go, Brunson’s availability for the playoffs is crucial because he’s proven to be able to perform under the brightest lights. In 25 playoff games he has averaged 17.8 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists on 46.5% shooting from the field.
In the playoffs, where opponents are able to gameplan a team more and more as the series goes on, the bench providing a spark can be crucial. The Knicks bench leads the NBA in net rating, an important distinction for a team that will need valuable reserve minutes during grueling stretches in the playoff games where the starters necessarily don’t have it going.
The Knicks also have Immanuel Quickley, who has emerged as one of the elite sixth men in the league post-All-Star break. The third-year guard has come on strong in the second half of the season – since the All-Star Game he’s averaging 18.3 points per game. What’s more impressive, however, is Quickley’s performance during games away from MSG in that span. The Knicks are one of the better road teams in the league and Quickley has the propensity to break the hearts of road fans; he’s currently putting up better numbers away from home, averaging 20.7 points per game while shooting a whooping 48.6% from the field including 40.7% from long distance.
Now, you may be wondering why this is important. Well, it matters because if the Knicks clinch the 5th seed they will most certainly start the first round of the playoffs in Cleveland versus the Cavaliers and will need Quickley’s road dominance in a hostile environment. The other main bench piece is Josh Hart, who has been a godsend for New York. The Knicks won their first nine games after his acquisition at the trade deadline. He is a major spark off the bench and has been a catalyst in New York’s surge up the Eastern Conference standings with his infectious energy.
The final piece to New York playoff hopes is RJ Barrett’s sustainability and efficiency. While his struggles may have been overblown this season, it’s fair to say that Barrett hasn’t taken the expected leap, his production reaching something of a plateau and highlighted by very poor three-point shooting. In the final full month of the season, Barrett has turned things around, though, and is scoring the most points he has all season while also sporting the highest shooting percentage he has all season. Barrett getting hot and staying that way is imperative to the Knicks’ playoff hopes.
This Knicks team has better than most people thought possible at the beginning of the year, and if everything clicks into place, they are absolutely capable of winning a playoff series, if not two. Nobody is expecting the Knicks to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy this year but this team has more than enough talent to make some noise and go on a serious run.
»Read: Lessons from the Knicks’ West Coast Trip
»Read: Immanuel Quickley is a Worthy Sixth Man of the Year candidate