Since a 1-12 stretch seemingly torpedoed any hopes of the play-in tourney, the New York Knicks have won five of seven after last night’s 100-97 triumph over the Washington Wizards. With the win New York leapfrogs Washington for 11th in the East. Next week they play Charlotte and Atlanta, the two teams ahead of them for the final play-in spots; they’ll play Charlotte again at the end of the month. In this season of extreme makeovers, it’d be a fitting end for the Knicks to go from flaming tire fire to having the chance to make the playoffs at the expense of Atlanta or even Brooklyn.
The play-in remains a longshot with the Knicks five games back with 12 remaining. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to play for. The Knicks finished last season strong, winning 16 of their last 20. The franchise didn’t hire Tom Thibodeau to win a championship; they asked him to build a culture. Peaking at the end of a second consecutive season implies intelligent design within the organization. For the Knicks, that might be a brighter sign of culture change than earning the 10th seed.
Quoth Jaybugkit: “Great rebound...” New York won the game on the strength of their rebounding. Six Knickerbockers had at least five boards, led by 17 from Julius Randle and a dozen for Mitchell Robinson. Randle’s undergone two makeovers this season alone: the fall from 2021’s grace to this year’s purgatory, and his resurrection the past six weeks. He shot poorly again last night, but Randle often contributes in other ways: in addition to leading the Knicks in rebounds, only Immanuel Quickley dished more than JR’s five assists. Randle leads the team in dimes and is about to be the first Knick to average 5+ assists in consecutive years since Raymond Felton.
Robinson has undergone a literal makeover in front of our eyes. The Swole Mitch of the early season gave way to a Mitch closer to the one we’ve known and loved over the years. Against a Wizards team featuring newly-acquired Kristaps Porziņģis, Robinson was so much quicker and springier than KP, who’s certainly lost a step or two; he even busted out a short hook shot (it missed) and put a quick stop to Washington’s Hack-A-Mitch strategy by making both free throws. He’s grown from a rim protector/lob threat to a real force on the glass, especially the offensive end; last night 10 of his 12 boards came off Knick misses, helping them a 17-0 advantage on second-chance points through three quarters.
They’d need every inch of that advantage in the fourth, because after taking a 96-81 lead the hare took a nap and the tortoise took off. Washington got hot from deep, particularly Kyle Kuzma, and then there we were in the final minute of the game, with the Knicks up one. But the Wizards, a team that started the year 10-3 and are 19-37 since, aren’t behind the Knicks by accident. They’re a flawed franchise, and with Bradley Beal out I didn’t feel the anxiety I usually would watching an opponent rapidly turn a 15-point deficit into a one-point game.
Maybe the anxiety wasn’t there because the stakes weren’t. In theory, the 12th-seed beating 11 to move up a spot right before games against 9 and 10 could be a big deal. It might have been, if this win left the Knicks two games behind instead of five. I mentioned purgatory earlier; it’s a place that’s become familiar to Knicks fans over the years. The odds are overwhelmingly against the Knicks passing Charlotte or Atlanta and against them moving up to a top-four spot in the draft. Every game’s outcome, in one way or another, sucks. Keep winning and you’ve gone from a shot at the sixth- or seventh-most ping pong balls to 12th. Keep losing and you’re back to meaningless games in April, the NBA’s version of a half-ass over-the-pants hand job. There was passion late last year. There was zest. Shit mattered.
Shit still does. Again, a franchise still working to earn trust and respect has no business cutting corners or taking games off. The Knicks have been too far removed from winning for too long to turn their nose up at it, ever. They may have cost themselves some draft position. They may miss the play-in anyway. But right now, as far as this season staying alive, they have to win. Beating Washington keeps them alive a little longer. Beating Charlotte and Atlanta would keep New York worth keeping an eye on. In a doomed season on this doomed blue marble, that’s all one can ask.