After a pile of Bones hit a deep 3 at the end of the third quarter and a four-point play to open the fourth, the Knicks were down eight in Denver, a nightmare realm where New York may as well be a European aggressor fighting a land war in Russia. They played well for three quarters, but the bitter chill of likelihood was settling in. They’d already surprised by winning the night before in Utah. Even with Nikola Jokić out, no one saw the Knicks winning both ends of the most physically demanding back-to-back in the Association. To overcome Bones Hyland and Co., the Knicks would need a thick skin. They’d need muscle. They found both.
Thick skin ‘round these parts may be rarer than you think. In my 30+ years following this team, the breakdown is pretty binary: the Knicks were great in the 1990s, spectacularly dysfunctional in the 2000s and pretty awful in the 2010s. They’ve never been mediocre. From the 1992-2022 seasons, you know how many times the Knicks won between 38 and 41 games? Once. Say what you will about Leon Rose, Tom Thibodeau and associates, but the truth is they’ve turned a joke into a mediocrity: New York is 86-83 under them. That matters.
It matters in games like last night’s, because last night is the kind of night that most Knick teams of the past lose. Those teams weren’t coached by a man who hunts wins like Ahab chasing his white whale. They weren’t led on the floor by Julius Randle, smiling and meditating through “trade him” talk for the third time in his four years here. Last night Dr. Jekyll shot the ball well, had a game-high 34 points and 11 rebounds and gave 2021 vibes.
With the game in the balance late and a loose ball at midcourt, Randle was the change we all long to see.
Our muscles are made up of pairs that include an agonist (the muscle that contracts) and antagonists (the muscle that lengthens). The Knicks flexed their muscle pairs all night. Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley were their typical positive selves, with both continuing to trend upward: Toppin saw more late-and-close minutes paired alongside Randle; Quickley, after playing 20+ minutes in five of the first 11 games, has now done so in five straight. Isaiah Hartenstein and Jericho Sims combined to offset the absence of the injured Mitchell Robinson. Cam Reddish, Jalen Brunson and Derrick Rose chipped in 43 points on 54% shooting. Sims and Quickley were both stuck on an island defending All-Star guard Jamal Murray in the final seconds when he was looking for a 3; both slid their feet, kept Murray in front and forced him to fire blanks. RJ Barrett was clearly under the weather, yet in a 31-minute performance that would have made former Knick and Nugget J.R. Smith weep with pride, RJ managed to get off 18 shots — missing 14, including all nine of his 3s. All right, so pothing’s nerfect.
One night after a fourth-quarter comback saw them overtake the Jazz, the Knicks launched another to get past the Nuggets. Quoth bst123: “Great win. Can’t complain.” Got that right. The Knicks looked anything but kvetchy once the final horn sounded.
Post-game vibes after the dub in Denver pic.twitter.com/vODYBXjOOd— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) November 17, 2022
I invite all of you, in addition to myself, to complain less as the season unfolds. Do you remember the Steve Mills/Scott Perry years? Back then my barometer for success was literally “Just don’t make any blatantly stupid moves.” Those years were a tourniquet, just trying to keep the Knicks from bleeding out. Under the current regime success remains a stranger, with no obvious path to the long-awaited messiah. The Knicks aren’t going to lose enough games to draft a superstar. With Randle, Barrett, Brunson, and Mitch all on deals with 3-5 years left, the cap sheet isn’t the clean and pristine thing it once was. And if you won’t trade half the team for a 25-year-old All-Star who’s dying to be a Knick — not saying they were wrong to pass on Donovan Mitchell — then what exactly are you planning to trade someday, and for whom? It doesn’t make sense to trade more for a bigger star, as that’d still be a lateral move; trading less for a lesser star doesn’t appeal either.
I’ve only seen two .500ish Knick teams in my life: the first season I followed them religiously, 1990-91, and the 2003-04 campaign when Stephon Marbury joined the team. Here’s what I remember about those teams: they’ll win games they “shouldn’t,” which gets people hyped that a change gon come; they’ll lose some they “shouldn’t,” which sends some folks into a tailspin. Everything is possible, which makes living from result to result maddening. Take the current road trip: when it started people were down on the team and 1-4 looked likely. Ian Begley was telling us that Thibodeau’s seat was warming up. Two games later, a 4-1 trip isn’t a fantasy, and Thibs, for all the grief he gets, has (possibly because he’s forced due to injury) gone to the Julius/Obi pairing we thought he’d never try; since shortening the rotation to nine, the Knicks won consecutive games for the first time since they were 3-1.
Next game is tomorrow at Golden State. Regardless of the outcome, take solace in this: the Knicks are average. They will probably be at least average for a few years. If that sounds like damning them with faint praise, understand I write those words with a thousand Hosannas in my heart. Because the last time the Knicks won in Denver, the years that followed made average seem like Shangri-La.