By Lenn Robbins
This isn’t the storyline Knicks fans expected to be talking about this early in their team’s first NBA playoff appearance in eight years. But if we’re being honest, it can’t come as a shock.
These Knicks didn’t post this remarkable season by virtue of signing of a couple of big-name, past-their-prime, free agents to make a lot of noise for a short spell, as so often has been this franchise’s M.O. They did not sell out to compile a team of mercenaries like that franchise across the Manhattan Bridge.
No, their success was based on an old-school, but never gets old formula:
The Knicks brought in a coach who doesn’t suffer fools. They bought in on defense. And they went all-in on coming to work each day. You rarely heard the term load management coming from the team’s training facility in Westchester.
The sum of the parts helped almost each part perform better. See Julius Randle as People’s Exhibit A.
Man, do New Yorkers love a team like this.
And they go absolutely bonkers when that group succeeds, which the Knicks did this season winning 41 games.
Make no mistake, this team is capable of winning a lot of games in the regular season. But come postseason, when even the likes of Lou Williams considers playing defense, a team must be blessed with the brightest of stars to move on.
The Knicks simply don’t have that yet and the Hawks have one in Trae Young (27 points; nine assists), who is harder to like than a screaming child in a playground, but a heckuva player. They have John Collins (22 points) and Clint Capela (15 rebounds!).
That in a nutshell is why Atlanta Hawks are on the verge of ending the Knicks season after their 111-96 win put New York in a 3-1 hole.
A 3-1 deficit is not insurmountable but the first four games have made it clear that Atlanta has more options on offense, which means it doesn’t have to sweat blood on almost every possession as the Knicks do.
Randle been flummoxed all series. RJ Barrett looks more and more like a solid third option on a really good team.
Game 5 is Wednesday in The Garden and here are two propositions you can make book on:
- Tom Thibodeau’s team will leave so much sweat on The Garden floor you could paddle a canoe from 7th to 8th Avenues.
- These Knicks fans, who for reasons on they can truly understand and articulate, will be so Clockwork Orange crazy that Young’s bald spot might get a little larger as hair is screamed from its roots.
“We’ve got a Game 5 back at home to extend this series,” Randle said. “I love our chances. It’s not over. It’s not nearly over.”
No. It’s not. But grit and Garden can only take a team so far. Wednesday night also surely will be the last home game of this Knicks-affirming season. Only 13 times has an NBA team facing a 3-1 deficit rallied to win the series out 260 opportunities.
“We’ve got to fix it,’’ Thibodeau said. “We’ve got to fix it fast.”
There’s a lot of fixing still be done in Knicksville.
Randle (23 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists), for all his grit, work and desire, is a Robin to someone else’s Batman. There is no shame in that. Barrett (21 points), has been an apparition, appearing and disappearing from game to game and quarter to quarter.
Derrick Rose, who may not have found the Fountain of Youth but did come across a bottle stamped with those words, proved he can help any team –any team – by scoring 18 and flexing his leadership muscle.
Rookies Obi Toppan and Immanuel Quickley displayed hubris and potential in this series. Nerlens Noel and Reggie Bullock and Alec Burks are quality roster players if the Knicks can bring them back.
Can the Knicks force a Game 6 and then magically a Game 7? Stranger things have happened but the Knicks “11” is Frank Ntilikina. Let’s hope he and Kevin Knox Jr. are the final first-round draft pick busts the Knicks make for a while.
For now, the focus shifts to Wednesday night and a chance to extend the season, to keep this season of “We Here,” going, the chance to remind those of us who partied in 1970 and 1973 that nothing is better in the spring than a Knicks playoff run.
The Knicks are on the brink. It’s not the storyline Knicks fans hoped they be discussing so soon. Because man was this season a treat.