It’s Unsettling How Good the Knicks Are This Season

Julius Randle and Immanuel Quickley celebrate during a game against the New Orleans Pelicans February 25. Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Here’s a problem I didn’t think I’d have to deal with this year: I’m getting a little too carried away with the Knicks’ success. Last week, after they defeated the elite Celtics in a double-overtime thriller, it felt like they could beat anyone at any time, maybe even in a — dare to dream — NBA finals matchup. That Celtics victory capped a nine-game winning streak that lasted three and a half weeks, tying the team’s second-longest in the past decade. The Knicks haven’t been this good in a long time.

So it was perhaps useful to get a reality check in the form of three losses last week: to the Hornets on Tuesday, the Kings on Thursday, and the Clippers on Saturday. It’s not like the Knicks got blown out in any of these games: They locked down on defense, played scrappy in all three fourth quarters, and proved that they’re still formidable even when they’re on the back foot. Still, those setbacks were sobering, like a splash of cold water (or a Paul George three) in the face.

“I don’t think this is the year we win a championship; I’m not delusional. But I think this season is like, two steps forward,” Jason Olivo, a bar manager from Queens and lifelong Knicks fan, tells me. I’m not delusional has become my personal mantra these past few weeks, because it’s easy to get carried away.

On Sunday, the Knicks beat the Lakers to log their 40th win of the season — the first time they’ve done that in an 82-game season since 2013. And on Tuesday night, they wrapped up their four-game western road trip with an emphatic 123-107 win in Portland, coming back from a 16-point deficit.

“It feels like I’m Adam and Eve walking around the Madison Square Garden of Eden wondering if I should eat the forbidden fruit,” as NBA Twitter personality Rob Perez puts it. “One little taste, perhaps.”

This squad is clicking largely thanks to Tom Thibodeau’s coaching prowess and the front office’s smart moves during the off-season. Last summer, the Knicks signed former Mavericks point guard Jalen Brunson to a four-year, $104 million contract. The pickups of Brunson and Josh Hart, whom the team acquired in February, have complemented power forward Julius Randle’s consistent scoring, making the team a consistent, legitimate offensive threat.

But you don’t need to understand all the specifics to notice that watching the Knicks is simply very enjoyable right now. It’s not like this is completely unprecedented in recent history. The team was fun in 2020 and 2021 too — bing bong! — but this season feels different because they’re showing, one gritty, fight-’til-the-end win at a time, that they can actually compete with powerhouse teams. The Knicks aren’t the butt of the joke anymore.

“We always know the third quarter of doom — the other team goes on a run, and that’s it. We’ve seen it a million times,” says Kyle Maggio, co-founder of sports website the Knicks Wall. “And to not see it happening anymore — it makes you proud. It makes you happy, makes you feel like all rooting for this team is not worth nothing anymore.”

What has made this all even sweeter is that there are no real superstars on the team, even though the Knicks had the money to sign top-tier talent. Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant, who was traded in February by the chaotic Brooklyn Nets, said he never planned on joining the Knicks as a free agent years ago, noting that he “didn’t want to be the savior” of the team. In the end, nobody could quite blame K.D. for that decision — why would any NBA star want to join a dysfunctional, losing franchise? (Brooklyn’s big-three lineup of Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving fell apart this year, which some Knicks fans couldn’t help but relish.) Most problems with the team can be traced back to Knicks owner James Dolan, whom many consider the sport’s worst for his mismanagement, poor decision-making, and general rich-guy douchery. But lately, for once, upper management under Dolan hasn’t been actively making things worse. In fact, Leon Rose, president of the Knicks, has made smart roster moves that have kept the ship steady.

It has been a long time since Knicks fans felt this excited. For Olivo, it was the 2012–2013 season with Carmelo Anthony, when they made it to the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Pacers. Perez and Maggio both mention the same moment in 1999: Allan Houston’s floater to upset Miami in the first round of the playoffs. For these fans, the past couple decades of disappointment — bad drafts, trade drama, whole seasons of suffering — have made the smallest little victories feel huge. “We’re just content with the point-guard position,” Maggio says. (Brunson’s been averaging 24 points per game this season.) “We haven’t had a point guard since …” He blanks. We both laugh when we rattle off the rotating cast of forgettable examples over the years.

Given the Knicks’ track record, it’s hard for fans to celebrate a win (or streak of wins) without expecting the house of cards to fall at any moment. But Perez already calls this season a success, even if the team doesn’t make a deep playoff run. This team has been winning now, but by being smart with money for once, they’re flush with first-round picks and have set themselves up for future success.

Which is not to say that bowing out in the second round is going to truly satisfy longtime fans. When I ask Perez when he’d be content with the Knicks, he responds, “When I’m doing confetti snow angels in the Canyon of Heroes.”

It’s Unsettling How Good the Knicks Are This Season