Before the season, there was an unofficial hierarchy within the Eastern Conference.
In one corner you had the Bucks and Nets fighting for supremacy at the top (though Kyrie’s absence might’ve put a dent in those projections). In the other, you had just about everyone else elbowing for seeds 3-through-10—perhaps with a bit of wiggle room to separate the playoff locks from the play-in hopefuls.
The Knicks were somewhere in that latter group, though it was hard to pinpoint exactly where. Do they classify among the fringe contenders like Miami and Atlanta? Could they keep pace with the MVP-caliber talent who leads the Sixers or the dynamic duo in Boston? Were they destined to duel the Chicagos and Indianas of the world in the play-in tournament?
Nobody could know for sure where the Knicks would land in that jumble. They upgraded their roster. So did many of their conference contemporaries.
It remains too early to jump to any overarching conclusions about New York’s place in the East. We’re only five games into an 82-game season. Teams get better. Others get worse. Injuries and fatigue come into play. Trades. Adjustments. Etc.
But the fact of the matter is the Knicks have been significantly tested through those five games. They’ve had multiple matchups against the very opponents they’ll need to overcome to get anywhere worth going, whether it’s a higher seed or a deeper round of the playoffs.
The results haven’t always come pretty against those teams. In fact, they’ve come in a rather chaotic fashion with multiple overtimes and comebacks and potential game-winners. They exist nonetheless, and they’ve been impressive for a variety of reasons.
When Marcus Smart sent the opening-night game into overtime, the excess of energy pulsating through Madison Square Garden evaporated. It was the kind of shot that can kill the spirit of those on the receiving end. Coupled with Jaylen Brown’s continuous onslaught of points and that felt like a game the Knicks would lose after blowing a golden opportunity to seal the game in regulation.
They didn’t. They continued to fight through the first overtime and into the second one as well. It was tough. It was exhausting. There were moments when it certainly looked like it wouldn’t get done, but timely plays on both ends earned a thrilling victory against a bitter rival.
The Knicks hadn’t beaten Philly in their last 15 tries dating back to 2017. Mitchell Robinson has rarely been an answer for Joel Embiid. New York might’ve been deeper than a team missing its starting point guard, but would that matter with the man who finished second in MVP voting leading the opposing charge?
Evidently not. New York limited Embiid to just 14 points on 2-of-7 shooting and ended that nightmarish losing streak.
And finally, there was last night. The Knicks faced a Bulls team that hadn’t lost through four preseason games and four regular-season games. They were hot, in the friendly confines of the United Center, and ready to prove themselves against their first playoff opponent of the new season.
That a game New York led by double-digits through most of the second half came down to a final shot at the buzzer speaks to late-game execution that remains a work in progress. Still, that the Knicks built and held such a comfortable lead for a chunk of the game speaks to their impressive play at both ends, where five players scored in double figures and the defense limited an offense with a plethora of dynamic options to under 43 percent shooting.
Celtics. 76ers. Bulls. All quality teams that haven’t been able to solve New York’s newfound 3-point attack and Tom Thibodeau patented suffocating defense. Just ask Embiid. Or ask Jayson Tatum who shot 7-of-30 against the Knicks, or Zach LaVine, who was 7-of-17.
Much can happen between now and the end of the regular season. For now, though, wins over three likely playoff (or play-in) teams has the Knicks indicating that whatever tier they’re in, they intend to sit at the front.