Yet there were the long-suffering fans of the New York Knicks on Saturday, dancing in the Manhattan streets to celebrate two months of basketball that still feel too good to be true. The Knicks somehow enter March on a three-game winning streak and with an 18-17 record, good enough for the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. A year ago, by contrast, they were 18-42 — one game out of the East basement — and only beginning to pick up the pieces after firing their coach and president. Rather than slogging through another aimless rebuilding campaign, the Knicks are above .500 after 35 games for just the third time in the past 20 years and threatening to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Sharp turnarounds such as this are usually driven by superstar acquisitions, but the Knicks barely made a peep in free agency. They went more than nine months between games because they weren’t invited to the Disney World bubble, and their biggest offseason acquisition was Tom Thibodeau, the veteran coach known for his gruff intensity.
Indeed, Thibodeau’s fingerprints are all over New York’s improvement. This has long been his identity: unglamorous, demanding, defensive-minded and obsessed with the here and now. After the Knicks put away the Detroit Pistons on Sunday to claim their seventh win in their past nine games, Thibodeau stuck to his familiar script, whether he was asked about the recent play of center Nerlens Noel or about his team’s performance relative to history.
“One, I’m never happy. Two, I always think we can do better,” Thibodeau said. “It’s a proud organization. I was here during the 1990s. That doesn’t have anything to do with today. Just like I don’t want us looking ahead, I don’t want us looking behind. Our focus has to be exactly on what’s in front of us.”
New York’s winning formula can be traced to its defense, which has improved from 23rd last year to second this season. Thibodeau made his name screaming himself hoarse while coaxing maximum effort and aggressiveness on defense, and he has done that again this season despite juggling a roster of youngsters and journeymen.
Offensively, the Knicks have been the Julius Randle show. The 26-year-old forward has averaged 23.4 points, 10.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists — all career highs — and landed his first all-star selection. Much like Jimmy Butler, Thibodeau’s centerpiece in Chicago and Minnesota, Randle has reached new heights by embracing a heavier workload, playing every game and leading the league in minutes.
“I take pride in being durable and being available for my team every night,” Randle said Sunday. “That’s what the summer training is for, the running, lifting weights and pushing yourself every day when you don’t feel like it. Really, honestly, this is the easy part.”
Now in his seventh season, Randle has become a more refined playmaker and a more efficient scoring threat. During previous stops with the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans, his offensive game was heavily reliant upon hard drives into traffic, which could turn wild or lead to contested shots, and midrange jumpers. With experience, Randle has picked his spots more carefully and learned to stretch the defense with an improved outside shot. He’s shooting 41.9 percent from beyond the arc, and he has taken more three-pointers in 35 games than he did in his first three full seasons combined.
“Move like a guard and finish like a big,” Randle said when asked about his offensive evolution. “I know how to get to my spots, and when the three is there I’m going to take it.”
Randle’s chief running mate has been RJ Barrett, a scoring-minded wing who has been steadier in his second season. Barrett often looked lost and overwhelmed as a rookie, and the 20-year-old’s progress remains central to New York’s long-term hopes. Ditto for Immanuel Quickley, a 21-year-old guard who has played his way into all-rookie consideration after being selected with the 25th pick of the draft. With this year’s free agency class lacking headliners, Thibodeau will need to continue guiding these prospects for the foreseeable future.
There are plenty of ways that momentum could shift against the Knicks in the coming months. They are part of a seven-team pack that is separated by less than two games in the standings, meaning that a short swoon would send them tumbling. That morass includes the Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics, teams with proven playoff cores that can be expected to make runs down the stretch. For comparison’s sake, New York would have only the ninth-best record in the West — a reflection of how topsy-turvy and underwhelming the East has been.
What’s more, the Knicks have the third-toughest remaining schedule in the East, according to tankathon.com, and they will need to survive a six-game trip through the Western Conference in May. Their defense also has held opponents to 32.5 percent shooting on three-pointers, easily the lowest mark in the NBA. If those opponent shooting numbers level up, the Knicks’ defensive efficiency will slip and their 23rd-ranked offense, which has been good enough to get by so far, could prove to be more problematic.
Knicks fans shouldn’t dwell on the possibility that rain might be coming to ruin this parade. Spike Lee told the New York Times this week that he is “optimistic” and that his fellow die-hards “see hope,” and Randle has dismissed talk that the Knicks are defying expectations. For once, New York is competing in the spring rather than playing for the summer.
“In our locker room, it’s expected,” Randle said. “I’m not really surprised where we’re at as a team. We have a certain level of focus that gives us a shot every night.”