Key metric for how good a time I am having as a Knicks fan: am I googling "tom thibodeau young"? Yes. Quite recently, I regarded that mullet. This weekend made it impossible not to. On Friday, Julius Randle finessed a near-turnover into a fadeaway dagger over the Heat, then (literally) toppled coach Thibs with the excitement of their eighth straight win—beautiful. On Sunday, a double-OT victory over the Celtics made it nine straight—beautiful. They are now 39-27 and fifth in the East—beautiful. They have a cushy schedule for the last 16 games—beautiful. They still do this thing where, in crunch time of a competitive game, they turn gummy and confused, losing leads and sputtering out, much as they have over the past decade, as if it were some inexorable spiritual inheritance agnostic to the actual players on roster that season—also beautiful. And they almost frittered away Sunday night's game that way, too. But this time they had Immanuel Quickley to steady them.
Quickley's feats were as about as heroic in execution as in endurance. In a parody of Thibs minute management, the 23-year-old bench guard did not rest after halftime, playing 34 minutes straight to the end of play. In his 55(!) total minutes he posted a career-high 38 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, four steals, two blocks, and one turnover. Quickley might not mind the grind, though; he has effectively reinvented himself in his coach's image. He came into the league with unmistakable microwave flavor: pretty floater, nice three-ball, early onset tunnel vision. In this third season, which began in a gruesome shooting slump, he transformed into a maniacal defensive gremlin, with the offense as a pleasant add-on. It's as if Quickley has channeled all the jittery energy of a bucket-getter into the exact opposite pursuit: help defense. Now he is hollering to organize his teammates, reading the opposition two passes ahead, and skittering around the floor to break up plays. No one could've seen this coming this two years ago, and it rules.
What made Sunday so brilliant, though, was the way Quickley picked up the best parts of his rookie self and integrated them into the present. The Knicks required a dose of that old Quickley on Sunday. Jalen Brunson was out with a sore left foot. That tends to put too much on the shoulders of Julius Randle. He's found a nice compromise between his anomalous All-NBA peak two years ago and last year's season-long tantrum, and he's benefiting massively from presence of Brunson, a responsible adult who can get into the paint and initiate the offense. But no Brunson meant Randle was again miscast as the orchestrator late in the game. He ran hapless iso after iso as the lead shriveled. (If Thibodeau has a single insight about crunch-time play design, he's saving it for the afterlife.) Randle, who'd spent the better part of the evening locked in psychological warfare with Marcus Smart, was flustered and spent. He deferred to Quickley.
Starting in place of Brunson, Quickley had found paths to the rim all game long. The floater was as pure as ever. From the end of the third into the early fourth, the Knicks put together a 30-7 run, with IQ scoring or assisting 18 of those points. Then came the collapse. But in overtime, no one was fresh like No. 5, smiling, skipping, and punching hole after hole through the Celtics defense, 55 minutes be damned. He scored four of the Knicks' five buckets across the two overtimes, and assisted the other. “I was telling [Julius Randle] that before the second overtime," Quickley said. "I was like, ‘It don’t get better than this. We’re on national TV in the Garden.’" He had fun! We had fun, too.