Even if you don’t like them, almost all sports fans (especially basketball junkies) love to see the New York Knicks succeed. The Knicks have been putting smiles on the faces of all of New York with their Cinderella story of a season, sitting in the postseason picture for most of 2021. New York is now 31-27 after winning six consecutive contests and only half a game back of Atlanta for fourth in the East after an overtime thriller against the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday.
All-Star Julius Randle has been averaging 36.3 points, seven and a half rebounds and seven assists his last three games at a shooting clip of 45.8/48.1/83.3. His last 5? Randle’s put up 33.8, eight rebounds and six assists shooting 46.4/39/88.1. Here’s one of his best outings of the season from the other night.
The seven-year vet out of Kentucky became the first Knick with at least 40-10-5 since Bernard King in 1985.
Randle, just named Eastern Conference Player of the Week, was also the igniter of an instant classic that went down at the Garden Sunday afternoon. The feeling in the building was like a wave of emotion that New York hasn’t felt in a long time. In a battle with Zion Williamson, Randle had another stellar performance with 33 points, 10 boards, five assists and five steals, making him the first Knick with four straight 30-point games since Carmelo Anthony in February of 2014. He also became the first Knick with a game of 30 points, 10 dimes and five steals since Nate Robinson in 2009.
“He prepared himself for this,” Head coach Tom Thibodeau said following Friday night’s win over Dallas. “I’ve had a number of players throughout my career that are that type of player and they don’t prepare themselves extremely well in the offseason so they can handle the workload they’re gonna have. They command a lot of attention. When you’re scoring the ball and making plays the way he is, yanno, he’s rarely single-covered and he’s making the right plays, he’s making winning plays, the way we started the game, his aggressiveness set the tone for it and I’ve said it many times he’s our engine. He makes us go.”
The main key that’s given New York the ability to develop an identity this season has been defense. The Knicks are first in opponents field goal and three point percentage at 44.1% and 33.4% with the third-best defensive rating (108.0). They’re also tied for first in the league with the most games holding opponents under 100 points with 19. That’s the Tom Thibodeau effect. Toughness, resilience, hard-nosed grit and all-out poise.
“It’s the defense unequivocally and the commitment Julius Randle has made,” Doris Burke said. “Julius (Randle) has gone from a young man like most guys who enter the league thinking the single-most important thing I can do to be successful in the NBA is score the basketball, but Julius has done so much more than scored and we get lost in the 44 points or the 30 points and he’s been brilliant and you can tell he’s worked so… hard on the perimeter jump shot. He’s now legit from three, you’ve got to guard him, that opens up his dribble-drive game.”
The ESPN analyst continued to praise Randle’s newly elite devotion and defense.
“The fact of the matter is, did you know if the season ended today, the number one power forward in defensive plus-minus would be Julius Randle?”
One of the other stand-out defensive players for the orange and blue has been another former Wildcat, Nerlens Noel. The 27-year-old has been a perfect fill-in due to the injury-plagued campaign from Mitchell Robinson. Noel ranks first in the NBA in defensive plus-minus and second in block percentage to Myles Turner. He’s fourth in the league in blocks as well with two and a defensive rating of 101.3. Opponents shoot 60.2% in the restricted area against the Knicks (second-lowest).
Averaging only five and six on a one-year deal worth five million, Noel finished with 12 points, eight rebounds and two rejections including this emphatic one in a crucial moment of OT.
Taj Gibson, who’s getting a third go-around with Thibodeau, has had a defensive rating of 104.1 during the win streak. The 35-year-old contributed with 14 rebounds and two blocks in the win on Sunday.
2010-2011: 91.3 (2nd)
11-12: 88.2 (1st)
12-13: 92.9 (3rd)
13-14: 91.8 (1st)
14-15: 97.8 (9th).
“Bottom line is, he’s got them playing at the top level that they can play,” YES Network’s Michael Kay said. “They are not much better than a one game over .500 team and he’s got them playing above what they really should be.”
The return of another former colleague of Thibodeau’s in Derrick Rose has also been a huge positive for the Knicks. Rose, since being dealt back to New York for a second go around, has put up 12.9 points, two boards and almost four assists in 22 games. With shooting splits of 43.2/36.8/85.1. Sunday was his first 20-pt game with New York this time around.
Rose dropped 23 points, three boards and five assists with a block and a steal. In the final 2:50 of the fourth quarter, the Knicks were down seven when Rose scored six straight points, had a beautiful drive-and-kick to the corner for a Reggie Bullock game-tying three and also blocked the potential game-winner by Eric Bledsoe to send the game to OT.
Here’s Barrett going six for six against the Celtics about two weeks ago.
Sophomore from Duke RJ Barrett has also been a nice offensive weapon for the Knicks. With a player efficiency rating of 13.74, Barrett averages 17.3 points, five boards and almost three assists on 44.8% from the field and a much-improved consistent 38% from long-range. He shot 50% from outside against the Pelicans. His comfort with the basketball and the confidence in shooting, driving to the hoop, finding the open man and crashing the glass has been on display a lot recently.
“The embarrassment of New York for the better part of 20 years is actually giving ya a whole lot of reasons to feel good,” John Jastremski of The Ringer, New York said. “They’re enjoyable to watch, they’re an absolute pleasure and that is of course the New York Knickerbockers who keep on keepin’ on, and think about their wins over the last couple weeks and what kinda triggered this winning streak because I think you gotta put it in perspective, the Knicks went through a stretch in mid-to-late March where they lost a bunch of brutal, brutal games that came down to the wire, I wondered if the dust ran out, and now they’ve gotten back to playing an unreal brand of basketball. Bizarre world folks, Knicks are killing it and the Yankees stink, what a world indeed.”
No matter how this season ends, the Knicks are winners. With the show that they’ve already put on as we approach May, they deserve a lot of credit. They have developed excellent chemistry and also have flexibility in free agency. They have an awesome vibe going with Thibodeau that I’m sure many players would definitely have interest in being a part of. New York has two first rounders in ’21 in a great class (Their own, and another coming from the Kristaps Porzingis trade with Dallas).
“I feel like the like there’s been this shift in attitude of the New York Knicks that there is now a plan in place and that perhaps the ownership is turning the keys over in the appropriate manner to the organizational structure to let them make the right decisions,” NBA analyst Doris Burke said Monday on KJZ. “I still think that the New York Knicks, when they’re good, the league feels a little bit better. I still marvel at the fact that I know COVID’s been different, but over the last several years we would still call an occasional New York Knick game, we might be in there on a Friday or Saturday night, they’re awful, they’re out of the playoff picture and yet that building, at the slightest glimmer of hope or a competitive game or one of their young stars doing something, the place was electric. Am I out of my mind to think potentially New York could be a draw to these NBA players?”
Photo: (Tom Pennington – Getty Images)
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