With a little over four minutes to go in the New York Knicks’ 104-102 win over the Detroit Pistons, with the Knicks in possession and what had been a 21-point lead whittled to five, the shot clock was winding down. The set looked bleak: three Knicks are not open and not doing anything about it as Julius Randle reaches for the ball near his feet.
It’s as true for jazz and love as it is for basketball: what you don’t hear or see is where what’s happening’s happening. The one Knick you don’t see in the clip is, if not easily overlooked, often overlooked, despite being one of the more versatile, clutch free agent signings in quite some time. When I say “overlooked,” I mean by everyone: the organization asked him to fill a role this season that isn’t what he signed up for, and despite his generally positive play and genial demenaor, fans seem to revere him more for his contract flexibility/trade value than his play. A spotlight, then, for one of New York’s character actor gems.
Alec Burks is stage left in the clip, falling out of bounds saving the ball to Randle. That led to this.
Julius DRILLS IT from downtown pic.twitter.com/j0GrjYCIvF— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) March 27, 2022
Randle’s volatility has been as big a Knick storyline as any this season. RJ Barrett has had two different seasons. Immanuel Quickley couldn’t shoot much of the year; lately he can. Obi Toppin plays 40 minutes or 12, with no in-between. Definition has been lacking. In a season of mists, Burks is the rare patch of land.
His first season in New York, he played point guard 1% of the time and small forward 73%. This year it’s 33% and 32%. Despite not starting the first 19 games, his 37 (and counting) starts since are a career-high. The only category he led the team in against the Pistons was free throws made. But even more than his 18 points (on 4/6 shooting), three 3s and five rebounds, Burks brings respect and self-respect to a young team whose core isn’t just about 2022.
If Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin are asked in the Canyon of Heroes after the Knicks’ 2028 championship parade who they want to thank, bet you both bring up Burks. TItle-winning teams always have a Moses or three in their origin story, those who advance the journey but never reach the promised land. The Knicks are lucky to have a model of professionalism like Burks around, as well as Taj Gibson.
Burks is second on the team in 3s, third in assists, free throws and free throws attempted, and fourth in minutes, points, field goals and rebounds. He only leads in two things. One is steals. The other is games.
I once waited tables at a restaurant in a Six Flags. Sunday mornings there were always three of us scheduled despite it always being dead. One Sunday the other two servers called in despite leaving the same party I did much earlier and much nearer sobriety. In a half-hour 14 tables were sat and I was working all 14 all by myself. Half the tables griped whenever another table got food before them because “we were here first.” The temptation to stop my shut my eyes and scream about the improbability of their claim held all the the promise of a cool wind on a hot day.
But after a couple friends came in early to save the day, what stayed with me was the quiet transformative power of trust. Even though the workload didn’t relent the second they showed up, my psychology completely shifted. My problem went from being unsolvable to being simply a matter of time and patience. With a minute left and the Knicks clinging to the slimmest of leads, desperate to avoid yet another deflating collapse, Burks made winning a late and close game, so often a mystery to these Knicks, a matter of time and patience.
Salvation wasn’t immediate, but a four-point lead with a minute left is light years beyond being up one. The pressure relented for good only in the absolute final seconds, when Burks reminded us he has his moments on both ends.
Quoth Jaybugkit: “Nicely done Burks.” It was. In a season when most of the talk around his game has analyzed his struggles out of position, it soothes and stirs to remember what Burks has been doing since he became a Knick. Whatever’s asked.