Do you hear a taunting, bacchanalian voice in your head sometimes, like I do? Growing in urgency and volume as it draws closer, like a siren...
The target of that clarion call, at the time, was Kevin Durant. Now, with the Knicks in the throes of the league’s longest win streak and heading out for a mini bout on the road as a team that plays not just well but energetically excellent there, the taunt, or open-ended invite, feels applicable to so many fans who’ve watched their franchises sink into the murk of the middle-standings this season.
The Knicks, one could argue, always do this. Their long-suffering fans would probably caution that they are still doing this, that all this will be for naught, that hope is better placed in something that doesn’t betray you on such a regular basis. But that’s been what’s so compelling about the Knicks, especially these Knicks, under Tom Thibodeau and Julius Randle.
There’s been a rejection of the old ways of the franchise. The cyclical tragedy of pinning the team’s entire hopes on a unicorn style player who would single-handedly deliver unto the Knicks not competent, steady progress, but a sudden leap into contender status. And then the total collapse when that person proved terrible.
These Knicks have struggled and stayed competent. They’ve made incremental improvements, like the addition of Josh Hart and development of 2018 Draft pick, Mitchell Robinson. Thibodeau is still a relentless grinder of a coach, but the style, conditioning and aptitude of the team under him have undoubtedly sharpened.
The team’s pushed into overtime 10 times this season, and while there’s a pretty apt "never enough minutes and Thibodeau" joke you could make with that fact, the team also hasn’t pushed beyond four quarters this often since Jeff Van Gundy’s tenure, a time when the Knicks were routinely playing well into the postseason. Thibodeau has called this group leaders and gym rats in the same breath, all to say a team after his own implacable heart.
Grinding has been the hallmark of New York this season, notably after last year’s dive following what was the team’s Cinderella single win playoff appearance in 2021. If there was an assumption that things were going to automatically improve after Trae Young took that bow in the Garden then the struggles of the Knicks last season put it to rest. Tension in the roster was palpable and Randle shouldered much of the (unfair) blame.
The antithesis of that has been the togetherness the Knicks have shown, and started to win under, this season. The unanimous buy-in is obvious in the way the team treats each other. During Randle’s postgame after the Knicks close win over Miami last week, Jalen Brunson came over to bear hug Randle mid-interview and stayed there squeezing him around the ribs for 15 seconds.
Asked about the team’s connection, Randle replied, “We really love each other. We really spent real time, quality time with each other, getting to know each other, just caring about each other. I think it just translates onto the court.”
The camaraderie comes out in their gameplay. When the Knicks have faced teams sinking in the standings, they’ve walloped them. When they’ve bested technically better, or more experienced teams, it’s been their willingness to outwork opponents on the floor that’s won them games. Against the Heat it came down to the final shot, with the Celtics, there were plenty of stretches where the best word for how New York looked was disorganized, but their jumble is an energetic one, willing to press and play ugly basketball until their opponent, overwhelmed, relents.
That raw verve is personified in Immanuel Quickley, who subbed in for Brunson in Boston and came away with 38 points, eight rebounds and seven assists over a whopping 55 minutes. Against a Boston team that’s calling card all season long has been a self-possessed steeliness, Quickley — loping and skipping down the floor, calling out the crowd — was a rollicking breath of fresh air.
Like every team that’s been trying to get their legs under them in the new, more immersive landscape that league parity’s made, the Knicks have had stretches of uncertainty. The difference is that in terms of timing, theirs appears perfect. Where much of the east still sits huddled in a nebulous middle, vying for the play-in, the Knicks have used identity crises of teams like the Nets and Heats to their advantage.
Beyond the Bucks, a team that won’t be outworked by anybody, there isn’t a top-tier Eastern Conference contender that would be thrilled to face the Knicks in a first-to-four series. They are that taunting voice, ringing maniacally in everybody’s heads.