No matter what happens in the playoffs with the New York Knicks, this regular season has been a resounding success. Very few in Knicks Nation had the Knicks winning over 45 gamers. In a pre-season Posting & Toasting roundtable on this site, I was the only one with higher expectations. In the discussion, I said the following,
“Escobedo: This is the year of the 50 burger. Brunson provides the team its first All-Star-caliber point guard since Walt “Clyde” Frazier. He’s fearless, stoic, and a dawg — terms absent from Knicks point guard play for over three decades. Brunson makes everyone better and the game easier for all. You add his intangibles to the deepest roster in the East, and it’s good enough for the 6th seed.”
Only Russell Richardson agreed with my sixth-seed optimism. The Knicks currently sit in the fifth seed, advancing our expectations. And while they didn’t hit 50 wins, their 47 wins could have certainly met my expectations had Julius Randle not been injured. Concerning their playoff expectations, I was the only one who foresaw a first-round win. In terms of their “x-factor” and “ ceiling,” I said the following:
“Escobedo: Thibodeau. The season’s ceiling depends on how our curmudgeon coach handles rotations, minutes, and, most of all, Randle. Is he able to bench Randle during stretches where he is a negative-impact player? Can he resist the urge to bench the kids when they’re hot on a blitzkrieg run? Can he restore the team’s defensive identity while allowing Jalen Brunson to take the ball out of Randle’s hands? If he can — and the achievement of such cannot be overstated — then this team can potentially shock the world come playoff time. And no, not in the sense of making the Finals like the ‘99 squad, but definitely getting out the first round, and maybe beyond.”
The most important phrase there is “shock the world.” I believe we will get out of the first round as I did then. The Cleveland Cavaliers are a favorable matchup for us for many reasons I laid out in a previous article I wrote for P&T. Pundits like Stephen A Smith will try to tell you if the Knicks lose to the Cavaliers, the entire season is a failure. That’s a whole ass mess. This series is not a referendum on whether or not the Knicks missed out on Donovan Mitchell. We have already proved we didn’t. Jalen Brunson’s career year cleared that argument up. The players we kept who would have been included in that trade, Quentin Grimes and Mitchell Robinson, have been crucial to our defense, shooting, and offensive rebounding. Both have a legitimate case to be on the Third-Team All-Defense.
We don’t need to smack the Cavs to prove that. We made the right call in not trading the farm for a player who is just as good as the one (Brunson) we signed in free agency for nothing. There is nothing that can happen to diminish the resounding success this season has been. Now, the post-season is an entirely different issue. If Tom Thibodeau leads the Knicks out of the first round, it will be tied for the greatest playoff upset of his career. Yes, you read that right. He has only beaten a team seeded higher than him once in seven post-seasons. It was in 2013 when his fifth-seeded Chicago Bulls beat the fourth-seeded Brooklyn Nets. Four games separated those two teams. The Bulls won in seven games. Every other playoff win by a Thibs-coached team was over a lower-seeded team.
The Cavs finished the season four games above the Knicks this year. While the Cavs started hot, the Knicks foundered until Thibs shortened the rotation to nine players in early December. Since then, the two have been evenly matched. But in a head-to-head matchup, the Knicks beat the Cavs in coaching, bench, and every starting matchup but shooting guard, where Mitchell clearly bests Grimes. Jarrett Allen and Mitchell Robinson are a draw, but Randle beats Evan Mobley, Brunson beats Darius Garland, and RJ Barrett beats Isaac Okoro. There is no reason the Knicks shouldn’t beat the Cavs. If they lose to them, and Thibs is outcoached, this post-season (not the regular season) will be a failure.
If the Knicks are embarrassed by the Cavs because Thibs fails to adjust or burns out his starters and limits the bench’s role in the series, he should be canned. Thibs has proven he can win in the regular season. He’s done it with all three teams he’s led in his career. His .572 win percentage and two Coach of the Year awards, both earned in the first year with the team (Bulls and Knicks), prove that. It’s his .410 win percentage in the playoffs that’s always been a concern. He has a chance to rectify that in this year’s playoffs by beating not one but two higher-seeded teams in a Knicks run. By doing so, he will reach his highest level of post-season success ever. If he doesn’t, it will be painfully obvious we have maximized his ability as our head coach, proving he can win in the regular season but not the playoffs. It would be time then to find a coach to take us to the next level. I believe he can and will outduel J. B. Bickerstaff, who has never coached a playoff series before. Based on history, having this belief, like my pre-season 50 burger prediction, can be considered a hot take.