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The Knicks Are Bringing Back The ’90s

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 10: Donte DiVincenzo #0 of the New York Knicks grabs Kelly Oubre Jr. #9 of the Philadelphia 76ers starting an altercation during the second half at Madison Square Garden on March 10, 2024 in New York City. The 76ers won 79-73. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Remember when everyone hated the NBA because nobody played defense, tried to play defense, or pretended that defense existed? Remember Adam Silver's Hello Kitty face at the All-Star Game? Remember the death of the sport as we knew it?

Well, all that was was talk, because that's all we ever do. We didn't offer solutions. We didn't hypothesize concepts to redress the imbalance. We didn't do anything except punish our couch for not being sentient enough to make a break for the front door.

But somebody did. And wouldn't you know it, it was exactly the guy you thought it would be: basketball's pre-eminent ball-don't-lie buzzkill, Tom (Death To The Box Score) Thibodeau. Not because he tried to save us from our kvetching, but because he does defense the way pigeons do migration: he is DNA-level compelled.

You didn't watch it happen, of course, because you were too engrossed in the Oscars (we left that task to Comrade Daramola, who is seriously on this because the cinematic fire burns deep in his soul), but Thibs, as he is known by people who foolishly believe there is a whimsical bone in his body, recalibrated his New York Knickerbockers to redress the league's cavalier attitude toward defending. This is his truth and his light, and against the face of everything basketball claims to stand for these days, he has instructed his team to bring out the surgical clamps and jumper cables for a quick refresher course on the pre-Curry Era.

Which is how you get this: 

Followed by this:

In three days, he held three teams to fewer than 80 points in an NBA game, and one of those three was his own. He saw the problem that people were having with the 400-point All-Star Game, with the Indiana Pacers who have scored 120 points 40 times this year, and with the general let-the-fellas-cook attitude that undermined his understanding of the game's best days, as represented by this little beauty.

This, we suggest, is porn to Thibs—a night in which anyone who watched it (and by anyone, we mean us) was both repelled and enthralled by the repudiation of hooping norms. And the 49 points of 25 years ago, which was itself a celebration of the end of the Bulls' era of relevance, is the 74 of today —and the Knicks are all over that.

It may be unfair to blame, or credit if that's the way you want to view this, Thibodeau for the Knicks' reversion to 1999 in hopes that scoring little and holding the other guy to less will get them back to the NBA Finals. But Thibs is synonymous with three things: preaching defense to the point of player revolt; shoveling massive amounts of playing time at his best players until they look like cadavers with $600 kicks; and a haircut that looks like it was rejected by the creative team at Lego. Given a choice between doing what he wants his team to do and preventing what the other team wants to do, he melds the two into a system in which his team agrees that the most fun is the one in which nobody scores.

It's hard to imagine how he performs this gift of mind manipulation, as it's not like Jimmy Dolan or Leon Rose or Jalen Brunson prefers it this way. But Thibs points to the standings and says, "Now, who likes watching the Atlanta Hawks?" Conversation is promptly closed.

It's just that, in this the year of our lord First To 130 Wins, the Knicks are suddenly taking this trend and trying to break it through counterprogramming. Only the Minnesota Timberwolves allow fewer points per game, and nobody plays at a slower pace. The Knicks are an Oscar winner's speech by the bloated chief investor of a movie you hated.

And it is now that they are hitting their true stride: allowing 74 to Orlando and then 79 to Philadelphia, with the monkey wrench being that they only put 73 on the Sixers. Isaiah Hartenstein was their best player Sunday with the rare 3-10-4 triple, uhh, thing. After all, who's got assists to deliver when your team is shooting 32 percent?

But all this is what you all said you wanted after the All-Star Game debacle. You wanted players who care enough to defend and a coach lunatic enough to demand it, and well, here it is. Just remember, the market always corrects itself, and never in a way you will like. It gives you a thing and waits until you say, "This is shit," and then gives you the direct opposite until you say, "No, I was wrong. THIS is shit." Hope you're happy.

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