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The Knicks Are Playing Modified Thibodeau Ball And Kicking Everyone’s Ass

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 20: Jalen Brunson #11, RJ Barrett #9 and Quentin Grimes #6 of the New York Knicks celebrate a basket against the Golden State Warriors during the second quarter of the game at Madison Square Garden on December 20, 2022 in New York City. 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

On the third day of December, the New York Knicks welcomed Jalen Brunson's old Mavericks teammates to their building, built up a 15-point lead, then sat back and watched as Dallas's guards mercilessly carved up their defense and turned one sort of blowout into the other. The two intertwined franchises had both been struggling through the first third of the NBA season, yet it was the Mavs who, on the road, got their shit right. A great many teams had been doing just that against New York (most noxiously: a 145-135 loss to the Thunder) and the least mathematically remarkable season possible had started to tip indelibly towards the bad side of .500.

Naturally, since that Dallas loss, the Knicks have won eight in a row, by an average of 17.6 points, while boasting the league's best defense and defensive rebounding rate over that period. Their schedule hasn't been terribly difficult, but who wants to pick nits over a team that just held the Cavs to 81 points, won three in a row on the road in style, then made the most of its national TV moment by kicking the shit out of the Warriors on TNT? You have to win the games in front of you, which the Knicks have not just done but done in convincing style.

Playing the Knicks looks like a painful experience, which is by design. After that Dallas loss, when the vultures started circling (NBA insider Ian Begley said on Zach Lowe's podcast this week that a rival executive got in touch with James Dolan about the GM job, should it become vacant), head coach Tom Thibodeau changed things up. Derrick Rose, Evan Fournier, and Cam Reddish, guys who can't guard anybody, were exiled from the rotation, replaced by Quentin Grimes and Deuce McBride. Immanuel Quickley started playing a bit more, and, critically, a bit more with the now-good starting lineup, while R.J. Barrett got to spend 10 or so minutes a night punishing bench guys. Those tweaks changed everything on both sides of the ball for the Knicks. They're shooting and making more threes now. Grimes and Quickley are both hounds on the perimeter, and better point-of-attack defense alongside Brunson's already pugnacious play instantly solved New York's Thibodeauian tendency to give up a million threes per game. Mitchell Robinson, playing the best ball of his career, is trusted to protect the rim with less help, and it's working, as the Knicks are giving up five fewer threes and six fewer free throws per game in December than they were in October and November.

Criticism of Thibodeau often coheres into a point about how the game has begun to pass him by, and that playing relatively sludgy offense while relying on size and physicality to win games matters less when the three-pointer is the key to win. There might be something to this idea, though I think it's worth stepping back and looking at the standings. The best teams in the league—Memphis, New Orleans, Boston, Milwaukee—are all built around indomitable muscularity. Beating Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Zion Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas, is an incredibly demanding task, and you can only shoot your way out of so many deficits when faced with all that beef. Pretty works (the Warriors won a title like six months ago), but Golden State was also a defense-first team, and the most reliable way to win is still by being the most physical, intense team you can be. Thibodeau teams always strive to play that way, though beating people up doesn't work on its own. You need to play some productive basketball on offense, too. This is where Jalen Brunson comes in.

Perhaps this improvement says more about New York's horrifically busted 2021-22 season than Brunson's individual skill as a player, but Brunson has clarified what was one of the grimmest, gummiest offenses in the league last year. He hasn't morphed them into a beautiful machine or anything, but he's helped them be better at what they were already good at. Brunson is a tiny man, yet he will gleefully play nasty. His passing and shooting and ability to simply being a normal guy in place of previous Knicks point guards who were either too selfish or too non-functional has made space for everyone else on the team to get their shots off. He and Julius Randle run effective pick-and-rolls in both directions, which speaks to Brunson's deceptive physicality. He loves to hit guys, and given the right matchups, he'll put defenders in the weight room.

I think the NBA is more fun when the Knicks are good. Knicks fans are a delightfully feral bunch, who are all about their team and turn the Garden into a stage for real spectacle every night. I certainly wish pain and suffering on some of the other largest and most dedicated fanbases in the NBA, yet the Knicks have been so grimly mediocre for so long that I want their franchise and fans to have something good happen to them (there is, I admit, no small element of projection at play here). The Knicks are now up to seventh in defense, 10th in offense, and sixth in the Eastern Conference with a two-game cushion from the play-in. Obi Toppin is still out. Maybe the Raptors, Hawks, and Heat will fix themselves at some point, like the Sixers and Nets have. It is, famously so, a long season. But this team seems to know how not to get too high or too low, and I think Brunson has played a huge part in getting everyone right. "Winning naturally gains confidence,” said Randle, a guy who is always getting thrown out of games and spent all of last season loafing and leering and missing bad jump shots. "But, I’m not going to put much into a winning streak or whatever. It’s still December." That's the quote of a man who knows what matters.

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