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5 factors driving the Knicks’ eight-game win streak

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It’s been a long time coming. And it feels great.

Atlanta Hawks v New York Knicks
Things are going well.
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

To anyone who just woke up from a coma they’d been in since before this season started, this is not a drill: one month from the playoffs, the Knicks own the longest active winning streak in the NBA and sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.

The streak has been so lovely that not a single Knicks fan cared at all when people tried to make a thing out of Zion Williamson liking New York. Why wouldn’t he like New York? It’s home to the hottest team in basketball.

The last time the Knicks won eight straight was 2013-14, when Andrea Bargnani graced the Madison Square Garden court like a gazelle that had just barely survived a lion attack. Speaking of lions, how about All-Star-turned-lowkey-MVP-candidate Julius Randle? Randle, who rules The Garden these days like he’s Mufasa at Pride Rock before Scar’s betrayal, definitely looked gassed in the first few contests following his first All-Star game.

But any concerns about his ability to close out the season were premature. On Randle’s shoulders, the Knicks have rattled off eight straight victories, including impressive wins over teams like Dallas and New Orleans.

Could the streak extend to nine? Sure, why the heck not? But right now, it stands at eight, and that’s something to smile about. Let’s dig into five factors that are driving the win streak.

Julius Randle, MVP.

Unless the Knicks somehow find themselves vying for one of the top two spots in the East, Randle won’t warrant much actual MVP consideration (right now, with 12 games to go, New York is 6.5 games back from Brooklyn for the second seed and 7 games behind Philadelphia for the top seed).

But make no mistake, Randle is just as important to the Knicks as Joel Embiid is to the 76ers, or Nikola Jokic is to the Denver Nuggets. As Tom Thibodeau has often said, Randle is the engine that makes the Knicks run. And during the win streak, Randle has been like the Wärtsilä RT-flex96C, which is one of the highest-powered engines ever made and was designed to power large container ships.

Randle has been LeBron-esque all season, but during the win streak he’s ascended to a new level. In the last eight games, Randle’s averaging 30 points, 9 rebounds and nearly 7 assists in almost 41 minutes per night while shooting 45% from the field, 42% from three and 86% from the free throw line.

The streak has included two efforts of 40 or more points (both against Atlanta), and five games in which Randle has reached at least 32 points. He’s closing out games with gusto, posting 7.1 points per fourth quarter during the winning streak, which is fourth in the NBA among players who have played in each of their team’s last eight games, according to NBA.com/stats.

Randle is the leader of this team, and the team has followed his lead by improving as the year has gone on. Only 26-years-old, Randle’s got a bright future ahead of him. He should be on some MVP ballots, is deserving of All-NBA honors, and let’s get real: he deserves the Most Improved Player award. So just give it to him, NBA.

Defense: They say it wins championships!

Walt Clyde Frazier no longer has to use the phrase “Swiss cheese defense” approximately 50 times a game when talking about the Knicks, because under Thibs, their defense has no holes.

Last season, New York finished 23rd in the league in defensive rating. This year, the Knicks are fourth in defensive rating on the season, behind Philly, the Lakers and Utah. They’ve climbed near the top of the leaderboard thanks to a steady, stout defense that has maintained despite the loss of shot blocker extraordinaire Mitchell Robinson.

The backup centers, which include Nerlens Noel, Taj Gibson and Norvel Pelle, have been outstanding. In particular, Noel and Gibson have done a fabulous job making the absence of Mitch feel almost unimportant. Noel has played in seven of the eight wins, posting 7.4 points per game, 9.7 boards and 2.9 blocks per contest.

As for Gibson, meanwhile, the 35-year-old has played just over 21 minutes per night in each of the last eight games, putting up 5.5 points, 7.1 boards and 1.4 blocks per contest while protecting the paint like it’s his job, which, well, it is.

It’s not just the centers. Everyone has contributed to a stellar team defense. RJ Barrett, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock stand out as three examples of non-centers who have been playing defense like they don’t want Thibs to get mad at them. Which, well, smart move.

The Knicks have been on fire from deep.

For the season, the Knicks have taken only 29.6 threes per game, which is among the lowest in the entire NBA. During the win streak, they’re up to 33 threes per game, which perhaps is a tribute to Patrick Ewing, and puts them in the middle of the pack instead of near the bottom.

Meanwhile, New York started the season shooting poorly from beyond the arc but has come on strong. In January, they were 25th in the NBA with a team three-point percentage of under 35%. Overall, prior to the All-Star break, the Knicks were 12th in the league, shooting 37.2% as a team.

Since the All-Star break, the Knicks are third in the NBA in three-point shooting at 39.9%. During the eight-game win streak, New York is shooting 40.5% from three, good for second in the league, behind only the Los Angeles Clippers. Most of the time, the Knicks are taking good shots, too, many of which are created by the drives of RJ and Randle.

Over the course of the win streak, Immanuel Quickley has hit 50% of his threes; Reggie Bullock has nailed 42.9% of his threes; RJ Barrett has drained 41.3% of his threes; even Elfrid Payton has hit 45.5% of his threes; as mentioned earlier, Randle is shooting 42% from three during the win streak. It’s raining in New York, y’all.

Despite early game struggles, RJ keeps coming on down the stretch.

Overall, RJ Barrett is having a spectacular sophomore season, improving in basically every area and showing that he’s got serious star potential. But as the Knicks have gone about winning eight straight, Barrett has struggled mightily in the early goings of games, with first half averages of just 5.1 points on 29% from the field, 32% from three and 74% from the free throw line.

Fortunately, whatever Thibs says at halftime must really stick with RJ, because following the break, Barrett has been bounding out of the bowels of the arena and burying jumpers as if the first two periods never happened. Over the course of the win streak, he’s posted almost 11 points per game on 50% shooting, 48% from deep and 83% from the stripe in the second half of games. In just the fourth quarter alone, he’s averaging 5 points per game, aka the same amount of points he scores in the entire first half.

Many of his buckets have been of the extremely important variety. As examples, take these three plays, all of which happened late in Wednesday’s win over the Hawks:

The bench is providing a consistent boost.

For the year, New York’s bench is mostly in the middle of the pack compared to other team’s benches. The Knicks’ bench is 13th in points per game and 26th in field goal percentage. That’s for the entire year, though. Dial it down to the last eight games, and stuff starts to happen. During the win streak, the Knicks’ bench climbs to 6th in points per game and 8th in field goal percentage.

That’s just a quick statistical showing of how, on offense, the bench has been better during the win streak. To break it down even further, you’ve got to start with four fellas: Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, Immanuel Quickley and Taj Gibson. Gibson we went over earlier. He has been a godsend this season, and serves as a stupendous defender of the hoop off the bench. Let’s quickly look at the other three.

First, there’s Rose, who on Wednesday had a virtuoso performance with 20 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists. He’s been making virtuoso performances a thing lately, acting as a steady hand to guide the offense once even Thibs gets tired of watching Elf. Over the course of the win streak, Rose has reached at least 20 points twice and has scored at least 15 points five times, all the while hitting nearly 52% of his field goals. Often, when he drives, he could easily be confused with the pre-injury version of himself. You know, the guy who won MVP.

Then there’s Burks, who has missed the last four contests due to “NBA health and safety protocols,” but played a major role in lighting the fuse that started this streak. In the first game of the streak, against Memphis, he tied with Rose for second highest point total on the team, scoring 19 points to help defeat the Grizzlies in overtime. A few nights later, he notched 14 of his 21 total points in the fourth quarter to help put away the Pelicans. Sometimes, it seems like he’s going to play his way right into a fat contrat from another franchise. But right now, the Knicks could use Burks back in order to help keep the streak alive. Get well soon, Alec.

Last, but in no way least, there’s Quickley. The rookie gunner has had an up and down overall campaign, with Thibs often keeping him on a short leash. Quickley has played less than 20 minutes and scored less than 10 points in five of the eight games during the win streak, yet he still warrants a couple paragraphs. That’s because, in the other three games, the version of Quickley that we all hope can consistently exist has been unleashed.

To start the streak, he lit up Memphis for 20 points on 7-12 shooting and 4-6 from three. After a handful of lackluster efforts, he started splashing again while playing the Hornets on Tuesday, netting 17 points on 5-9 shooting and 4-7 from three. Finally, he caught fire against the Hawks, finishing with 20 points on 7-11 shooting and 4-6 from three. You remember his biggest three of the night, but viewing that clip seems about as good a way as any to end this long-ass blog digging into the eight-game win streak.