A franchise and fan base familiar with mid- and late-season collapses, the Knicks have remained one of the NBA’s hottest teams as we inch towards the playoffs.
Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
Sir Isaac Newton probably didn’t have the Knicks in mind when he developed the law of gravity. But given how aggressively New York subscribes to the theory of what goes up must come down, he might have.
In recent years the Knicks and their loyal fans had grown accustomed to mid- and late-season collapses.
Back in 2017–18 under Jeff Hornacek, there was the excitement of a 17–15 start … before a 12–38 finish. During the 2016–17 campaign, they jumped out to a 14–10 mark, before going 17–41 the rest of the way. And in 2015–16 with Derek Fisher, New York began with a 20–20 record, to only finish the year 12–30.
Frankly, this season looked like it would be more of the same. The club sat at 19–18 during the All-Star break, then dropped nine of its next 15 contests to fall to 25–27. The Knicks’ spring schedule was intensifying, and their usual subway stop—outside the playoff race—appeared to be coming up soon.
But four weeks later the Knicks are still on the train, having won 10 of 11 as the league’s hottest team.
Because of those past instances, Knicks fans know better than to count their chickens before they’ve hatched. Still, with New York currently two games clear of the seventh-seeded Heat—and holding a 90% probability of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight’s projection model—we’re going to peer ahead just a bit. What’s the next step for the formidable Knicks, both now and beyond this year?
For now just about everything starts with forward Julius Randle. He was a tornadic turnover machine last season, coughing up more miscues in one-on-one situations than any other volume scorer in the league. Yet after a tireless offseason, Randle’s been a completely different, All-NBA type player this year, averaging 32.2 points, 8.5 boards and 5.2 assists on 50.7% from three the past two and a half weeks.
The challenge here is that opposing teams likely won’t let him wreak havoc that way in a playoff series.
Yes, at times Randle calls his own number in the middle floor, where it’s tougher to double-team him. But clubs like the Celtics and Heat will send aggressive traps at him when he’s serving as a pick-and-roll ballhandler. Similarly, when Randle’s acting as the roll man, defenses will sell out on him and simply dare guard Elfrid Payton to shoot floaters, which he connects on just 38% of the time, according to Synergy.
More than anything, though, Randle—equal parts freight train and maestro—will have to let the game come to him if and when teams seek to force the ball out of his hands. That means trusting his teammates in the corner, where the Knicks have launched a greater share of triples than any other NBA team thus far.
“Knocking those down is crucial, because it makes the defense change what it’s doing. It’s a huge help to [Randle] and our team,” says second-year wing RJ Barrett, who’s enjoying a breakout season of his own.
New York was dead-last in the NBA, at 32.8% from three, when left wide open in January. The club ranked fourth in February at 42.9% on those shots. Then ranked eighth in March at 41.9%. No one’s been better than the Knicks in April, a month when they’ve hit 48.4% of their wide-open treys.
Reggie Bullock’s been the club’s supreme flamethrower during this recent hot streak. Over those 11 games, he’s hit an impressive 53.1% (17-for-32) of his tries from the corners. Just as important: Bullock has helped create some of those looks—in basketball lingo, you would say he’s “hunted” them—by slinking away from defenders to put himself more directly in the ballhandler’s line of sight.
The pivotal nature of Bullock’s role, both as a shooter and a capable perimeter defender, presents an interesting question for this summer: How much is it going to cost to keep him beyond this season? (This could also be asked of center Nerlens Noel, who’s been a fantastic fit in replacing the injured Mitchell Robinson.) On one hand, it may not be a huge deal for New York to loosen the purse strings for him. On the other, with the Knicks finally looking legitimate, they may be more inclined to go big-star hunting, which—if they end up landing one—would make it tougher to retain a well-rounded player like Bullock.
Another thing to watch: Is there room for upside with this team, or are these Knicks already maxing out?
Of all the things you can question with New York—Barrett’s occasional tendency to run hot and cold, the team’s high foul rate on defense, whether the Knicks have been the beneficiary of good luck with opponents missing from three—it’s almost impossible to knock this team’s effort.
After years of geometric shapes and riddles—and almost no mention of the defensive side of the ball at times—it’s been refreshing to see the Knicks commit to getting stops on a nightly basis. In any given quarter you’ll see the long-limbed Noel issuing more return-to-sender notices than a local post office, or witness New York’s pesky wing stoppers swarming like cicadas on their rotations and closeouts.
“It’s some hard work. It’s real,” Barrett says of the defensive intensity coach Tom Thibodeau requires each possession. “But you kind of get used to it as the season goes along.” (One thing to monitor, which Thibodeau’s addressed with his players: The team’s fourth-ranked defense hasn’t been consistently solid during this run of success. It’s been more of an offensive hot streak. The Knicks hemorrhaged 113.5 points per 100 possessions from April 16 to April 27, one of the NBA’s 10 worst rates in that window.)
Often when people discuss Thibodeau and his ideology, both are framed through the prism of minutes and potential injuries. And that’s understandable, given the Bulls’ struggles to stay healthy during his time in Chicago. (Aside from Rose’s ACL tear in the 2012 playoffs, Joakim Noah and current Knick Taj Gibson also got injured during the team’s first-round series loss that year.) But the better question may be whether the Knicks’ every-night grind will leave enough in the tank for them to find another gear in the playoffs.
Then again, this was a youth-led team that went 21–45 last year. One that brought back seven of its top nine rotation players, and—with the NBA’s lowest payroll—didn’t add any significant free agents.
So even if New York ends up flaming out a month from now, fine. We know whatever goes up has to come down at some point. But after eight years, it’s been fun to see the Knicks enjoy this sort of hang time again.
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