The pre-season hype has been intense. More talk than actual results. Unequal game prevailed.
No, we’re not talking about the Knicks. This is due to the Eastern Conference, which is supposed to be a monster, but more than a quarter of the season has shown a picture of mediocrity after the top.
The nine teams from fourth to 12th place are separated by just two games in the loss column. Only three teams — the Celtics, Bucks and Cavaliers — have a winning percentage higher than .538. The Heat, 76ers, and Nets were big disappointments. The 12th-ranked Bulls are 10-14 and are rumored to be willing to move veterans DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic. Some analysts believe the draft could remain historically good, with more teams likely to land key players and look to improve their position by moving down the standings.
That leaves a golden opportunity for the Knicks, who despite an average 12-13 record are just one hot streak away from a strong playoff spot. After Wednesday night’s 113-89 win over the Hawks, they are just 1.5 games behind the Nets (14-12) for fourth place in the conference.
At the beginning of the season, it was believed that the playoffs were a realistic goal for the Knicks, given how difficult the East would be. That didn’t take into account injuries and many teams coming back. Now, I expect many teams to eventually play for form, as the 76ers, Heat, and Nets win more games than they lose, and the surprising Pacers (13-12) are the other goes in the direction Remember, the Celtics only played 50 games before reaching the NBA Finals last season.
However, it should be noted that the Knicks’ schedule has been difficult thus far. They have already played five in a row. Their remaining schedule is the ninth easiest in the NBA, Tankathon.
And the Knicks have played much better over the last few weeks, coming off a bad home loss to the Thunder in which they put up 145 points in a terrible game.
Granted, their 6-6 record (and 1.5 net rating) since then is nothing to get excited about. But in those 12 games, they’ve faced nine teams with current winning records. Three of the losses – to the Bucks, Grizzlies and Trail Blazers – were by six points or fewer. They went 4-2 on the road. And they welcomed back a healthy Quentin Grimes, who was their best perimeter defender and solidified in the starting lineup.
This team has been better of late, and it’s not overly optimistic to suggest that a jump in win-loss record is possible in December. On New Year’s Eve, the schedule is relatively soft. Six of the next 12 games are against teams that have lost. The Kings and Pacers, two teams that have won more than they have lost, are off to surprisingly strong starts, and they still feel a little underwhelmed.
The door is open for the Knicks. It’s definitely more open than it appeared in October. Now they have to force it open.
Not Brunson or bust
When looking at the score from the Knicks’ game against the Falcons, one player stood out. No, it wasn’t Julius Randle (34 and 17) or Quentin Grimes (season-high 23 points on 11 shots), the Knicks’ two best players on a rare stress-free night. It wasn’t Miles McBride’s six assists and plus-19 rating in 27 minutes.
It was Jalen Brunson.
The freshman had a night to remember, hitting 12 of 14 shots from the field, committing four turnovers and managing eight points and six assists. In fact, this is the first time Brunson has played all season and the Knicks have been able to win, which is a testament to how much they depend on the rookie point guard.
It also speaks volumes for the direction the Knicks are headed now that they can beat a quality team, not just Brunson at his best.
In the Knicks’ first 11 wins, Brunson averaged 23.2 points and 7.2 assists. In 13 losses, those numbers were 19.1 points and 5.3 assists. If anything, the Knicks have asked too much of Brunson this season. With the arrival of Grimes, perhaps this will allow them to lighten their collective responsibilities.
At least for one night, the Knicks were able to succeed without Brunson’s strong play.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to see Derrick Rose removed from the rotation if you’ve been paying close attention to his role before he even logged a minute in Sunday’s win over the Cavaliers.
Rose averaged just 13.6 minutes per game and shot 40 percent from the field. In a shaky month of November, Rose shot just 30 percent from 3-point range and averaged 5.7 points per game. He did not act in time. Immanuel Quickley was the backup point guard and saw more action.
At 34, the question is how much Rose has left. After playing in just 26 games last season, it’s also understandable to wonder if he’s still working on getting his legs back on track due to multiple ankle surgeries.
The other part of the equation is McBride, the Knicks’ 2021 second-round pick, who has impressed over the past two games. He gained a reputation as a tough defender, but didn’t get much of a chance to prove himself as a rookie.
Thibodeau spoke highly of McBride, talking about the former West Virginia star’s preparation and work habits. He speaks of McBride as he speaks of Grimes, and Thibaudeau makes no secret of his love for Grimes.
McBride’s strong defense, along with eight assists and two turnovers over the last two games, won’t hurt his push to hold down a rotation spot. In McBride’s total 43 minutes in those contests, the Knicks are outscoring their opponents by 27 points.