The Knicks are in the playoffs for the first time in eight years, with home court advantage. This is all really happening. And it’s happening despite so many things that could have fallen through.
A slimmed-down Julius Randle barged into this season channeling the game of a young LeBron and the appearance of an even older one. With the usual physicality and a tightened handle, he spent possession after possession bashing his way into the soft spots of defenses, where he could finish with conviction or hurl pretty passes into the corners. Who was this reincarnated Randle and how long would it last? Every new week it seemed like this nightly triple-double act could fizzle out—every game I’d pinch myself, staring at Julius Randle as the offensive initiator on a winning team—but it somehow never did. The man who previously looked miscast and overwhelmed in that role, whose desperation spin had launched a thousand memes, found and maintained an All-NBA level. And he did it while leading the NBA in minutes per game: a positively Thibsy 37.6, over 71 whole games. Randle also might’ve stopped sniping from three, on a harder diet of shots than he had ever taken his life, but nope—he ended the season shooting a 41.1 percent on 5.5 threes a game, including a baffling 40 percent on pull-up threes. This from a guy who had shot 27.7 percent from three last season while playing outside his ability, and was feted for shooting 34.4 percent the year before off pedestrian looks. Elite shooting and passing came out of nowhere, and stuck.
And then there was the Knicks’ defense, which at mid-season was offering opponents an extremely appetizing menu of threes and shots at the rim, and could have turned into a buffet if opponents evened out to normal shooting luck. But the reckoning never came; the Knicks stayed stingy. Under coach Tom Thibodeau they ended the season with the NBA’s fourth-best defensive rating and its second-lowest opponent effective field goal percentage. Sky-devouring defensive anchor Mitchell Robinson was thwarted by injury, but Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson proved more than capable replacements as the Knicks held opponents to a league-low 58.9 percent in the paint. R.J. Barrett was a hapless defender his rookie year, and now looks bound to become one of the best and burliest defensive wings working. After seasons of known mediocrity, Randle has worked his way up to an above average defender at his position, and even Obi Toppin is out here surviving a Chris Paul isolation and throwing down on the other end. In record time, they’ve all bought in to the Thibs Way. The team that did nothing in particular correctly under David Fizdale now found a discrete identity as a squad that walls up in the paint, throws its weight around, rotates manically, and makes offense as unpleasant an enterprise as possible. Put differently: a New York Knicks team after its fans’ hearts.
Uncharacteristically good things happened to these Knicks all season, even beyond Randle submitting one of the heroic Knick performances of the 21st century. In Immanuel Quickley, they dug up a productive rookie late in the first round, with deep range and an immediately iconic floater and a little more juice off the bounce than anticipated. Player development is no longer just an abstract pairing of nouns but an actual job description. Robinson’s physically spectacular defense found some discipline and judgment. Barrett suddenly switched on his jump shot: His three-ball leapt up to 40.3 percent clip from his rookie 32.0 percent, and his free-throw percentage leapt up to 74.6 percent from 61.4 percent. With this one change, I’ve released the uncomfortable breath I was holding in for all of last season, and am now delighted to watch Barrett’s game take shape over time. Meanwhile, a 32-year-old Derrick Rose got downhill effectively, long thought illegal for Knicks point guards, and came within striking distance of 50/40/90 shooting. Reggie Bullock supplied the yeoman’s three-and-D. Austin Rivers earned some fond feelings before shipping out. Alec Burks could always unclog the offense when summoned. Elfrid Payton … played fewer minutes over time. Nerlens Noel deserves another tour of duty.
And after all this flourishing, the Knicks still had the opportunity to poop themselves in their last game of the regular season. They nearly made good on that promise. On Sunday night they played to secure the No. 4 seed in the East, against a Boston Celtics squad with all its relevant players either resting or hurting bad. Consider the fearsome starters: Semi Ojeleye, Grant Williams, (former Knick legend) Luke Kornet, Payton Pritchard, Romeo Langford. Meanwhile, the Knicks trotted out all their hitters and eventually amassed a 21-point-lead in the third quarter—only to sweat through a one-possession game with 12 seconds left in regulation. But New York survived, if barely, to win 16 of their final 20 games of the season, and secure that No. 4 seed. They will get the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, and that is a winnable matchup. This lovable roster did the unlikely, making a reality of those three words, long-awaited by the true believers, and sure to send a chill into the heart of the opposition: playoff Frank Ntilikina.