*Content warning: this article contains positive mentions of Elfrid Payton which some Knicks fans may find disturbing.
Knicks history is filled with clear lines of demarcation. The team reached three straight Finals in the early ‘50s. Then they pretty much stunk till the late ‘60s, at which point they began their Golden Age. By the mid ‘70s the good times were gone. The early ‘80s had their moments, the mid ‘80s brought Patrick Ewing, and the ‘90s were the longest sustained stretch of excellence.
I often write about “this century” as one long-running low point, but it’s more complicated than that, in some ways. 2003 was way better than 2015. 2011 beat 2004, and 2013 stands out far from the sadding crowd. After Saturday’s 110-99 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, this season is shaping up to be the most pleasantly surprising since that ‘13 carpet ride.
“Hark!” the gatekeepers of joy hiss from the blackness. “The Knicks are but 11-13. In 2017 they were 16-13. The year before that, they were 22-22. To relish this as anything special is a fool’s paradise.” To which I smile, open my umbrella and float away, keenly aware those teams were led by Carmelo Anthony (31-32 years old), Courtney Lee (31), Jose Calderón (34), Arron Afflalo (30), Derrick Rose (28) and Robin Lopez (27), all of whom were older than the Knicks’ oldest key player now, Julius Randle (26).
Not sure if it was the new Knicks or the Blazers being discombobulated on the last leg of their East Coast swing, but Portland was a tad askew early on. Rodney Hood, Robert Covington and Gary Trent Jr. all committed shooting fouls biting on fakes. That, coupled with Enes Kanter’s minus rim protection and RJ Barrett’s continued Neo impression, put the Knicks ahead.
Mitch defense leads to RJ stopping and popping! pic.twitter.com/i9qt2NpOey— The Strickland (@TheStrickland) February 6, 2021
RJ BARR3TT pic.twitter.com/dFHqq0B2gY— The Strickland (@TheStrickland) February 6, 2021
Then Portland, who currently sport the fourth-longest streak of games with 10+ threes in NBA history, remembered what makes them special. A flurry of triples care of Trent and Damian Lillard gave the Blazers a 15-point advantage from downtown in the first quarter and a five-point lead headed into the second.
GTJ is a walking bucket pic.twitter.com/4LTPe6Uq2A— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) February 6, 2021
LOGO LILLARD @dame_lillard | #NBAAllStar pic.twitter.com/OMEf2ogbaa— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) February 6, 2021
Speaking of All-Star point guards, Immanuel Quickley checked in to a reception befitting a man who scored 21 in the fourth against Portland a couple weeks ago. This is what he saw for all (squints) 13 minutes he played.
Portland's playing superstar D on Quickley, he passes out and it finds Burks for the triple pic.twitter.com/CrfQu6Rlbe— The Strickland (@TheStrickland) February 6, 2021
Speaking of new realities, all-time Knick great Carmelo Anthony (fight me if you must; you’ll lose) learned what everyone who’s ever seen the Grammy nominations and not known who any of them are knows: it’s the legs you lose first. Melo was short on his shots, hitting the front rim when he wasn’t hitting air.
Nerlens Noel was out with a sore knee, so Taj Gibson saw his most run since returning to New York. Portland was as obviously comfortable going at him as the Knicks were Kanter. Lillard is obviously comfortable shooting anything from anywhere, dropping head-shaking buckets from 30 feet out or at the rim. I couldn’t find a clip of this, but with about two minutes left in the half he drove baseline before merging effortlessly into a seamless fadeaway. A NYC taxi driver would have whistled knowingly.
The Knick defense has made a point of turning it up against teams they see more than once, and after the Blazers put up 31 in the first the screws tightened to the tune of 20. Reggie Bullock drove and kicked to Elfrid Payton for a corner 3 just before halftime, putting New York up six. The Knicks, continuing a trend from their last win in Chicago, were dominating the paint. Between that and Portland cooling down from distance, the Knicks went up double-digits in the third. Hood and Lillard finally broke the duck, but the lead held at 10 thanks to should-be All-Star Randle nailing some 3s of his own.
Beautiful ball movement started by RJ finds Randle for the triple pic.twitter.com/s3ROILlvEu— The Strickland (@TheStrickland) February 6, 2021
Portland persisted in portents of parity, but they couldn’t quite get there. Burks, one of five Knicks with multiple 3s, hit late in the third to put New York up eight. Payton hit the 20-point mark for the second straight game for the first time since his last weeks with the Orlando Magic.
Anfernee Simons, the second-greatest Anfernee in NBA history, scored the Blazers’ first nine of the fourth. But Melo was called for a dubious foul for elbowing Gibson after a rebound, then hit with a technical foul. Burks followed that with a three-ball and the Knicks were up 11, their biggest lead of the day. Again Portland pulled close, 90-85; again New York had all the answers, thanks to Quickley.
IQ raining threes some more pic.twitter.com/KR3Yr7UhH7— The Strickland (@TheStrickland) February 6, 2021
IQ makes this steal and finds Bullock for the transition layup after making two fantastic pull-up 3s, then gets benched for Elfrid immediately after lmaooo pic.twitter.com/5127yEvjtm— The Strickland (@TheStrickland) February 6, 2021
Then Tom Thibodeau pulled Quickley for Payton.
Weird, right? But thankfully inconsequential. The lead ballooned to 15 after a Mitchell Robinson deflection caromed off Lillard and a referee before Payton took it all the way, followed by another Burks 3. The Blazers mostly hung around down seven, and despite my conviction that Lillard would go off and bring them back, Portland missed a ton of threes trying to cut the lead to four. The Knicks went most of the 3:30 without scoring, but often in life it’s the work you do along the way that ends up making the difference. Talk about difference.
Last year: 11-29— The Strickland (@TheStrickland) February 6, 2021
This year: 11-13#NewYorkForever pic.twitter.com/TCfGmsZvfF
- The Knicks under Thibs continue to make tremendous adjustments the second or third time they see an opponent. If they make the playoffs, that’s exciting!
- I was very interested in how Mitch would handle Kanter, especially on the boards. Not only did he hold his own, with 10 to the Turk’s 11, but four other Knicks had 7+ rebounds. We don’t just rock together. We roll together.
- This was very much a team win. For only the third time all year, six Knicks scored in double-figures: Randle, RJ, Payton, Burks, Bullock, and Quickley.
- I still root for Melo. I hoped his first pull-up would drop. Hoped they all would. Always will.
- For some reason over the years my fiancee, who watches most games with me, misses them whenever the Knicks play Carmelo. She was pumped to finally get to see him in action. Quoth Brittany after the final whistle and Anthony’s 1-of-8 shooting: “Still never seen Melo play.”
- Kanter is the only person I’ve ever seen who goosesteps when he runs.
- Great question on the MSG trivia: Carmelo averaged 24.7 points per game for the Knicks, the third-best in franchise history. What two players scored more?
- A great Clyde Frazier story during the broadcast: when Kanter was a Knick, for Christmas he gave Clyde a gift certificate for Gucci. Clyde thought it was for $50. He told his girlfriend (has Clyde ever mentioned a girlfriend before?!) and she said “Man, you can’t get nothing at Gucci for $50!” He thought he might get socks. Turned out the gift certificate was for $500. He said Kanter was the first player ever to give him a gift as a broadcaster.
- The wild swings in games now with all the threes flying makes watching them entirely more stressful. It’s not like Knicks/Heat 79-75 games in 1999 weren’t anxiety-ridden. Just a different kind of stress.
- Don’t know if anyone tracks timeout trends, but I feel like the Knicks are causing more teams to call early timeouts than they have in a long, long time.
- Trivia answer: Bob McAdoo and Bernard King. I guessed Ewing and Carl Braun.
Quoth ItsTheDevils!: “Very impressive win, this team is finally fun to root for again.” They are! The Knicks have had four four-game losing streak this year; this is the third they’ve followed with a winning streak. That’s how you stay around .500, which this year in the East looks like more than enough to make the playoffs. The Knicks can pull within a game of breaking even Sunday at 1 against Miami. Between that and Man City at Liverpool, you don’t need the Super Bowl to have a super sports Sunday.