All season long, the New York Knicks have been a feel-good story in the Eastern Conference.
Led by a player who had been given up on by two organizations and a coach who many experts thought had lost his touch in his previous stop, the Knicks took a mismatched collection of mostly veteran castoffs with a few intriguing young players and became a team that could be counted on to play hard and competitively each night. They strung together enough wins to hover around .500, and in the Eastern Conference, that would certainly be enough to compete for a low-level playoff spot.
The front office, largely chaotic for much of the past decade, finally has some stability, led by Leon Rose. The team didn’t use its cap space to make the splash it hoped to by landing a star in free agency, but when they struck out, they also didn’t panic. In years past, the Knicks were known for missing their target and, to save face, swinging wildly at overpaid, injury prone, or otherwise high-risk big-name players. Instead, they’ve saved most of their money and instead brought in a collection of high-character veterans to help establish a professional and hardworking identity.
But over the past three weeks, propelled by a 9-game winning streak, that feel-good story has become something deeper – what if the Knicks can not only get to the playoffs this season, but win a round?
A lot will depend on matchups, of course, but here are three reasons that the idea of the Knicks in the second round of the playoffs isn’t as inconceivable as it would’ve appeared to be before the season started. Here are three reason we could see the Knicks in the second round this season.
Julius Randle’s continued ascension
It’s not like Randle’s brilliance this season has gone unnoticed. He has led the Knicks in scoring, rebounding, and assists all season. He’s made considerable improvements in his passing, perimeter shooting, and defense. His passing, in particular, has been noteworthy. Randle has always had the skill to be a good passer, but not the willingness. He’s had a reputation as a bit of a black hole on offense throughout his career, but his scoring draws the attention of the defense and as he’s become more comfortable giving the ball up, he’s turned into a good shot creator for teammates.
Randle became the first Knick in three years to be selected to the All-Star Game when he was named as a reserve this year. He’s likely going to be the runaway winner of the league’s Most Improved Player award. By any measure, he’s had the most successful season of his career and one of the best individual seasons in recent Knicks history.
But those might not be the only conversations he unexpectedly forces his way into. Over his last 10 games, Randle is scoring 29 points per game – 5 above his season average – with 9 rebounds and 6 assists per game. He’s also hitting 44 percent of his three-pointers over that stretch.
He’s averaging 27 points per game in April, his highest scoring average of any month this season, and he’s averaging 25 points per game since the All-Star break. His recent play had fans giving him “MVP!” chants during a recent New York win.
Randle is certainly a longshot candidate for the award – futures odds currently give him a 150-1 shot at winning the award. He’ll certainly receive votes, though, and he’ll definitely be the most out-of-nowhere name who will receive consideration this season.
More importantly for the Knicks, Randle’s game translates very well to a playoff series. He can create his own shot, he can score inside or outside, and he can create shots for others. Depending on who they play, he can be a difficult matchup for slower big men who struggle to defend face-up players and he is also problematic for smaller frontcourt players who can’t handle his strength in the post.
Tom Thibodeau has installed a world-class defense
Thibodeau was unceremoniously fired from his last job in Minnesota after having losing seasons in two of three seasons there and failing to connect with some of the team’s young players. He seemed to be an odd fit for a rebuilding Knicks team. Thibodeau prefers veterans, and he often employs comically short rotations that squeeze young and developing players out of the playing time needed to improve.
To be fair, he has shown some of those same old traits in New York. Old favorites from his Chicago Days, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, often get minutes over the team’s two first round picks, Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin.
But Thibodeau has shown at least a little improvement in that regard. He has given Quickley some leeway despite his occasionally erratic shot selection. He’s let second-year guard R.J. Barrett play through some brutal shooting slumps early in the season. That is paying off now, too – Barrett is hitting 48 percent of his threes over his last 10 games. Toppin hasn’t played as much as most lottery picks, but he has seen some recent spot minutes as the Knicks have struggled with injuries up front.
And for any shortcomings he has, there can now be no questions about Thibodeau’s ability to coach up a team defensively. The Knicks have one of the best defenses in the league. They give up the fewest points in the league. They have a pack of guards on the perimeter that includes Barrett and Elfrid Payton who can put pressure on the ball. And even when they lost their defensive anchor, center Mitchell Robinson, they were able to replace much of his defense and rim protection with backup Nerlens Noel. Even if their offense is off, the Knicks have the ability to keep games close thanks to that stifling defense.
They could see a favorable matchup
Assuming they find a way to hold onto the fourth seed, New York could draw a potentially great matchup in round one. Currently, they’d face an Atlanta Hawks team that isn’t sure when they’ll get Trae Young back. And even with Young, the Hawks are a poor defensive team and they’re reliant on perimeter scoring. The Knicks’ defense would have a good shot at forcing the Hawks guards into some bad shooting games.
The Knicks would like to hold onto their spot and for the Hawks to as well, because then they’d avoid a matchup with the defending Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat or the surging Boston Celtics. Both teams trail Atlanta by 1.5 games. Both of those matchups would make for a tougher and more physical series, but if they see Atlanta in round one, expect New York to advance.