The Knicks played so badly last year they weren’t invited to the NBA Bubble in Orlando to finish their games. They had a 21-45 record in the pandemic-shortened season, for a winning percentage that looked good only if you thought of it as a batting average. They lost their coach, their fifth in as many years, and failed to score a single marquee free agent in the off-season — usually a must if you want to stay relevant. That the Knicks had been pegged as a bottom Eastern Conference team coming into 2021 didn’t stop me from watching, of course. It’s an annual ritual to see how many scoring droughts and blown leads I can stomach before turning off the TV in disgust.
But almost from the start of the new season, this team was different. Under the new regime of president Leon Rose and coach Tom Thibodeau, one of the best strategic minds in the game, the Knicks have put a disciplined, fiercely contending lineup on the court every night and pulled out unlikely wins in a blitz of steals, blocked shots, and step-back jumpers. Several Knicks are having career seasons. After years of tripping over their laces, the surging team — which won 10 of its last 11 and knocked off some of the best teams in the league — is in the thick of a heated playoff race.
With the NBA finally allowing fans back into arenas and COVID news looking increasingly hopeful, I decided to drop $150 to see the Knicks’ first home game with fans in March, then two more in the following weeks. When I made this decision, it was already three months into a season that has been a grind on players and a gag on thunderous applause. Watching televised games held in empty arenas with pumped-in crowd noise courtesy of 2K Sports was a reminder of how much was still missing from the game, especially in New York, a city that prides itself on its vibrant basketball scene. As New York inched toward fully opening for business again, I wanted to witness the resurgence of my favorite team — and my favorite city — up close.
The Garden Is Alive Again
After showing proof of a recent negative COVID test — and witnessing a bloody scuffle outside the arena, which lent surreality to an already strange scene — I was in.
The Knicks’ opponent on February 23 was a decent Golden State team with a rejuvenated Steph Curry, who had been putting on a clinic in recent games, draining shots from the logo. Normally, this would be a packed house. Tonight, with the attendance capped at 10 percent of capacity, it was more like a G League preseason game.
Then a fan with a Melo jersey yelled out, “We’re at a Knicks game. Yo, man, live basketball!”
That was all I needed to hear.
Much has been written about the Knicks’ fervid fan base, which is broadly diverse (cutting across race, gender, class, and borough lines) and loud (hey, it’s New York). Personally, I love hanging out with the Garden crowd. For one thing, they can be uproariously funny, win or lose, especially in the 400s, where you see a cast of great New York characters: sneaker addicts and artists, budding scouts full of unbridled opinions, people with interesting lives and connections to the game, a guy who says “A lot” when you return to your seat and ask “What’d I miss?” (even if nothing happened), and some very gifted smack talkers.
Curry had 37 in the win, but the night belonged to Julius Randle, the Knicks’ dominant power forward. He had just been selected to his first All-Star Game, and when he went to the line, kids near us started an “M-V-P” chant. It was a tribute to Randle’s great season more than a realistic possibility.
“C’mon, now,” said someone behind me. “That’s a little much.”
“Yeah,” I said, “try Most Improved Player.”
And with that a counter chant was started: “M-V-P” … “M-I-P.”
Every Knicks game I saw live this year went down to the wire. In the second one I attended, on March 18, the Knicks’ unsung hero Reggie Bullock came up with a last-second steal to secure a win against lowly Orlando.
Wait, defensive stops? The Knicks?
Yep, and it’s mostly thanks to Thibodeau. A front-runner for his second Coach of the Year title, Thibs has been around the NBA for three decades. Although you wouldn’t know it by watching him on the sidelines sometimes — he looks as if he’s been waiting an hour for the next train (my daughter calls it “resting New York face”) — he loves being back in the city where he spent seven years as Jeff Van Gundy’s assistant in the ’90s, the last decade of great basketball at the Garden. When he was introduced as head coach, Thibs talked about his father taking him to see the Knicks, his favorite team.
“I think he was realistic that there was a lot of work that needed to be done,” says Peter Roby, a boyhood friend who hired Thibodeau when he coached at Harvard in the ’80s. “But anybody who knows Thibs knows he’s not afraid of work. That’s the thing he’ll do. He’s going to outwork you.”
His players are equally committed. Against all expectations, the Knicks have remade themselves as a top-ranked defense with the fewest points and field goals allowed in the league as well as the lowest three-point percentage allowed. They’ve hung in games by out-hustling opponents and playing an aggressive style that produces more lane closures than Chris Christie. Just ask Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic (who was held to one basket in the first half) or the budding Pelicans superstar Zion Williamson (one basket in the fourth quarter).
The Knicks are impressive offensively, too: Randle has amassed five triple-doubles and counting as the “engine” of the team. The Knicks’ big man, Nerlens Noel, is a one-man block party who rebounds, sets picks, and catches lobs for bench-clearing dunks; he has been crucial to the team’s run. So has the playmaking of versatile shooting guard Alec Burks and Immanuel Quickley, a.k.a. “I.Q.,” a streaky rookie with lots of upside. Then there’s RJ Barrett, a willing student with great basketball roots who was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 draft. If his long-range shooting continues to improve, some say the Knicks may consider themselves better off than they would have been with Williamson, the much-heralded No. 1 pick that year.
Still, the team’s D has been the star of the show. Roby recalled with some amusement that Thibodeau’s current reputation stands in contrast to his playing style as a young man: “Those of us who knew Thibs as a kid laugh because he didn’t play a lick of defense!”
Still New York’s Team
Even in a limited-capacity arena, there’s nothing like the closing minutes of a hard-fought game, which is what I witnessed on April 18 from section 414, row 1, seat 6, against Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans. Late in the game, down three with the crowd abuzz after a time-out, veteran Knicks point guard Derrick Rose drove the lane and kicked it out to Bullock for a corner three that tied it with :02 on the clock. The downsized Garden erupted, and the Knicks ran away with it after regulation. It was part of a nine-game win streak that finally ended on Monday with a loss to Phoenix, which has the second-best record in the league. The Knicks, who took care of the Chicago Bulls two nights later, are now in sole possession of the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference standings, which still leaves them eight games back of the front-running Brooklyn Nets.
Brooklyn’s roster is straight out of a Space Jam movie. The combination of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and James Harden, the “Big 3,” could give anyone fits; it may be the best lineup the city has seen since the Old Knicks of the ’70s (Reed, Frazier & Co.) that won two championships. The Nets also have the league’s second-highest payroll ($166.3 million); the Knicks have the second-lowest ($95.8 million). When I asked Van Gundy if the Nets were loosening the Knicks’ grip on the city, he didn’t wait for me to finish the question. “Well, we can hold off on that,” he said bluntly, then laughed. “I’d say basketball fans in the city are probably, what, 90/10 Knicks?”
It’s a testament to the Knicks’ legacy in New York that they retain as much of a fan base as they do. Under perennially archvillainous owner James Dolan — who has finally hired some effective people to run his team — the Knicks have been stuck outside the velvet rope, so to speak, for a very long time. To people who still follow them and are starved for a team they can get behind, this is a time of hope and reinvention mirroring the optimism of a post-pandemic city. Perhaps the best encapsulation of the Knicks’ season comes from the Daily News sportswriter Stefan Bondy, who on game days writes what’s called a “running story” to meet his paper’s deadline. “We basically file our story at the buzzer, so I have to guess on the outcome [as the action unfolds], hoping I don’t have to do a last-minute rewrite,” Bondy says. “In years past, the Knicks might be up 15 and I’d think, Oh, they’re gonna blow it. But more than any other, this season, even when the Knicks are trailing in the second or third quarters, I find myself writing that they’re going to win.”