The Knicks Have a Chance to Prove Critics Wrong
Midway through the fourth quarter of the Knicks’ lopsided win over the Warriors on Tuesday night, Julius Randle glanced over at his sideline. What he saw astonished him. Tom Thibodeau, New York’s hot-blooded coach, sitting down. “That was crazy,” said Randle. “Three years with Thibs, I’ve never seen that.”
Randle has seen this level of success before. Once, to be exact. The Knicks’ eight-game winning streak is the second Randle & Co. have experienced during the Thibodeau era, the most since a nine-game stretch in the coach’s fairy tale first season. Against the Warriors, New York won with diverse scoring (six players in double figures), solid defense and an efficient (42.5%) three-point assault. They attacked the offensive glass relentlessly (14) and got steady in-game leadership from the first steady in-game leader (Jalen Brunson) the team has had in decades.
“Everybody’s contributing,” said R.J. Barrett. “It’s fun to watch.”
Minutes before the opening tip, Shaquille O’Neal—the NBA Hall of Famer turned TNT analyst—offered little more than faint praise when discussing the Knicks’ winning streak. “Whoopie-freaking-do,” said O’Neal. “I don’t think they can get out of the first round of the playoffs.” From the other side of the set, Charles Barkley expressed a similar sentiment. “They’re playing great,” Barkley said. “But they are not even the best team in their city.”
Knicks skeptics will direct you to drill down on the circumstances of this streak. While New York has been durable—the Knicks have missed the second-fewest games this season due to injuries, per ManGamesLost.com—the teams they have beaten have been banged up. Atlanta (mostly) without Dejounte Murray. Sacramento without De’Aaron Fox. Golden State took its nationally televised pasting with Stephen Curry and Andrew Wiggins in street clothes.
Still, it’s impossible to dismiss the gains the Knicks have made in recent weeks. Brunson, the team’s $104 million investment last offseason, has been worth every nickel. Randle, while not playing at the All-NBA level he displayed in his first season in New York, is vastly improved from the player who stumbled through the last one. Quentin Grimes has been a steady defender and reliable three-point shooter since emerging as a rotation player in mid-November.
“I love our team,” said Thibodeau. “I love the way they practice, the way we prepare.”
Indeed. The Knicks are evolving. The first month of the season was highlighted by a leaky defense and inconsistent rotations. They ranked in the bottom third of the NBA in defensive efficiency, points allowed per possession and points allowed in transition. Whispers of a significant shakeup were growing louder. In mid-November, Thibodeau tightened his rotation. Evan Fournier and Cam Reddish, a pair of offensive-oriented wings, were phased out. Derrick Rose, a Thibs favorite, was too. Grimes, a sturdy, 6'5" guard, was bumped into the starting lineup. Miles McBride was bumped up to a larger role. The result has been a vastly improved defense—most notably when it comes to defending the three-point line—and a starting lineup with one of the best point differentials (plus-13.6, per Cleaning the Glass) in the NBA.
“We’re clicking,” said Brunson.
Grimes in particular has been a revelation. The Knicks’ refusal to include him in trade talks for Donovan Mitchell was reportedly among the reasons a deal fell apart last offseason. And while the jury is still out on that—Mitchell is an All-NBA candidate in Cleveland—New York’s faith in Grimes is being rewarded. They are 11–5 with him in the starting lineup. He's shooting 38.7% from three during that stretch. Routinely matched up against opponents’ top perimeter player, Grimes (with a 106.1 defensive rating) has done well. The combination of Grimes, McBride and Immanuel Quickley has given Thibodeau a reliable defensive backcourt rotation. Quickley’s defensive rating (101.8) is fourth among players averaging at least 20 minutes per game, per NBA.com.
Said Thibodeau, “I love the way our perimeter is playing right now.”
The Knicks, tied for fifth in the conference standings after walloping the Warriors, have a chance to keep climbing. The schedule remains relatively light through December, with a Christmas Day date with Philadelphia the only current plus-.500 opponent on the calendar. And even when the schedule toughens, New York can compete. The defense, backstopped by the shot-swatting Mitchell Robinson, should remain steady. The scoring—the Knicks and Warriors are the only teams with three players averaging at least 19 points per game—should remain diverse. And while Brunson’s play has been at an All-Star level, it’s his leadership that routinely draws the most praise.
“It’s been tremendous,” said Grimes. “Having a leader like that in the locker room, on the court, and off the court. When he’s off the court, he’s being vocal to us, talking about different coverages defensively. He’s been a great leader for us on all cylinders. Really.”
Nothing is won in December, of course. The Knicks learned that in 2020–21, when an inspiring 41-win (in 72 games) season ended with an embarrassing five-game ousting in the first round of the playoffs. O’Neal may be proved right. But with Brunson, an improved defense and a rotation that works, New York will have a chance to prove Shaq and all the skeptics wrong.