The New York Knicks were once considered a cute resurrection
story. But one improbable victory at a time, they’ve become
something much more — a team that nobody should want to see in the
NBA’s Eastern Conference Playoffs.
A young squad that still has quite a bit of growing to do, over
the course of the season, under Tom Thibodeau, New York has shown
the hallmarks of a team that is built to find success in the
playoffs. They are well-coached, get after you defensively and are
quite effective playing halfcourt basketball.
All three of those facts were on display on Sunday when the team
secured a 106-100 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers — arguably
the Knicks' best win of the season.
Last offseason, anyone who merely suggested the Knicks would be
a playoff team would have been ridiculed. And if that same person
mentioned the team would have the opportunity to host a first-round
playoff series? They would’ve been accused of sniffing glue.
Yet here the Knicks are. A team that has quickly come to embody
its head coach’s personality — serious, determined and
“They’re the last team I’d want to play in a first-round playoff
series,” one league scout told BasketballNews.com when discussing
the Eastern Conference. “Even if you managed to beat them, they’d
probably take a lot out of you. They would definitely soften you up
and be doing your opponent in the next round a favor.”
Those comments were passed along to us shortly after Phoenix
Suns guard Chris Paul remarked that the Knicks “make every game
feel like a playoff game,” and that they “don’t take any
Compliments they may be, many of the league’s higher-seeded
teams have long done their best to play themselves into favorable
first-round playoff matchups.
The Knicks no longer qualify.
“Hell yeah it’s something we pay attention to,” one former NBA
player said. “If winning is the number one priority, wouldn’t you
want to give yourself the best possible matchup? Why would you want
to make your road to the Finals or even the Conference Finals
tougher than necessary?”
Every game counts in the postseason, especially since the league
extended the first-round from a best-of-five to a best-of-seven
back in 2003.
At that time, the change was met with opposition from a fair
number of players and members of the players' union. Prior to this,
if a team was forced to play the maximum-possible number of games
to win the championship, they’d have to play 26 contests — roughly
32% of a regular-season schedule. The additional two games made the
maximum 28 games and the corresponding percentage 35% of a
Two games may not seem like much, but with each contest comes
risk, and as we’ve all seen many times over, one play can change
history. So the league’s dirty little secret has long been that
teams analyze their situations and try to find themselves in the
scenario that will result in them advancing as far as they can
while not necessarily having to endure a tough seven-game playoff
In fact, the very notion of “load management” and players being
pitch-counted is all done with a long-eye toward bodily
preservation. The postseason, it is believed, is a fight against
attrition as much as it is a competition against other teams.
As we head into the final week of the 2020-21 regular season,
teams are looking at the standings and trying to figure out who
they’d match up best against.
For the first time in, say, 20 years, the Knicks aren’t at the
top of anybody’s list.
Entering play on May 10, New York can lay claim to being the
league’s fourth-best defensive team (allowing 106.1 points per 100
possessions). Julius Randle is the Eastern Conference’s reigning
Player of the Month, while RJ Barrett has put together an
Already a strong driver, Barrett has become quite a respectable
threat from the outside, and that’s being modest. In post-All-Star
play, he’s connected on 44.2% of his three-point looks but has not
become overly reliant on jacking up threes; he’s merely used it as
another weapon. The latest wrinkle that he’s effectively added to
his game — and one that the coaches have been in his ears about —
is mastering the art of the interior pass.
In Derrick Rose, the Knicks have an older point guard whose
athleticism and attack ability haven’t completely left him. Out of
necessity, Rose has had to learn to outsmart his opponents rather
than rely on his blinding athleticism to get him (or his team)
where he wants to go on the floor. For all his ups and downs, Rose
never stopped believing in himself. Deep down inside, he still
believed he could be a difference-maker for an NBA team, and in New
York, he’s proving that to the world.
From Alec Burks to Reggie Bullock to Immanuel Quickley, Tom
Thibodeau’s team has a fair number of players who have proven
capable of having a big night and helping the team to victory in
Back in 2015, one of Thibodeau’s players in Chicago told me that
the secret to the coach’s success — aside from his maniacal
preparation — is that he treats every single player the same exact
way. Thibodeau has never bent his standard. Players respect that,
and when they respect you, they’ll believe in your message. When
they believe in your message, they’ll buy into the team, and when
they do that, the sky’s the limit. That’s exactly why — just like
Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler — Thibodeau has been able to get the
best out of Randle and Barrett.
In all likelihood, the best is yet to come for the Knicks.
They’re ahead of the curve and have the future assets necessary to
continue to build around the pieces they have.
Nonetheless, despite being far from a finished product, as the
2021 NBA Postseason is upon us, there are a few around the league
who agree: Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks aren’t a team you want to see
come playoff time.