Knicks’ Playoff Surge Fueled by Work Ethic

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With a frenzied, last-ditch comeback to force overtime against the New Orleans Pelicans, the New York Knicks won 122-112 in front of a delirious Madison Square Garden crowd. These feisty Knicks have now won six straight games. This is the longest such streak for this franchise since 2014. This Knicks teams work-ethic is seen as being a key factor in their playoff surge.

Knicks work-ethic a key to their win streak and playoff surge

With a roster many media pundits had pegged as one of the worst teams in the league, they have eclipsed all wildest expectations. New York has a genuine chance at making the playoffs outright and avoiding the play-in for teams seeded 7-10. They currently reside at sixth in the Eastern Conference and a mere half-game away from fourth. Let’s look at the key contributors:

Tom Thibodeau Coach of the Year candidate

Under coach Tom Thibodeau, the Knicks encapsulate everything this uniquely passionate, and loyal fanbase in New York wants in their basketball team. Dating back to the glory days of the ’90s when the Knicks were the talk of the town, they were a serious force under Jeff Van Gundy. Thibodeau was an assistant in these teams incidentally. Known for their ferocious defense, they scrapped for every possession lead by Hall-of-Famer Patrick Ewing. Fast forward decades later, this current team shows a similar attitude on the defensive end of the floor.

What they may lack in collective talent, and they more than make up for their offensive deficiencies with work ethic, which has been a key factor in their playoff surge. Stan Van Gundy, coach of the Pelicans, also pointed out that this team is a similar throwback to the ’90’s era in terms of defense.

It’s not just defense, but rather the preaching of a team-first mentality that has been key to their turnaround.

In terms of efficiency, prior to Thibodeau, the Knicks ranked 22nd in the league in defensive efficiency. Fast forward a few months they are now top-three. Thibodeau preaches good habits and hard work and this has propelled the Knicks during their playoff surge. It’s hard to think of any coach in the league who has done more for his franchise than Thibodeau this season.

Randle’s MIP and All-NBA year

If Julius Randle doesn’t win the league’s Most Improved Player award at the end of the year, something’s wrong. He is the definition of the award. Written off last year by a frustrated fanbase, Randle got to work in the offseason. According to insiders, he worked furiously day and night in the gym to improve his game. He came into camp in unbelievable shape and his hard work has paid off.

His numbers are incredible this year. In 2019-20 he averaged a middling 19 points per game with 3 assists and just 27% from 3-point range. This season he’s at 23.7 points per game, 10.5 rebounds 6 assists, and 40% from three. Not only are these all career highs, but he also leads the team in every offensive category. As well as his increased threat from range and scoring, he’s making his teammates better around him.

This week he has been given the Eastern Conference Player of the week honors. Being the first Knick since Carmelo Anthony in 2014 to score 30-plus points in four consecutive games. He’s making his mark on the franchise record books this year too. For instance, he became the first Knick since legend Bernard King, to hit at least 40 points, 10 boards, and five assists in a single game. He’s also the first Knick in 30 years to have multiple triple-doubles in a season.

Randle carries this team. He handles a massive workload, and his leadership and work ethic have been key to the Knicks’ playoff surge. As Thibodeau succinctly put it: “He’s our engine, he makes us go.”

Gibson and Noel’s huge defensive years

Not enough can be said about what Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson have brought to this team on the defensive end. When starting center Mitchell Robinson broke his foot and battled injuries this year, many pundits weren’t sure how the Knicks would hold up without him. Step up Nerlens Noel who is currently ranked first in the NBA for defensive plus-minus. He’s also among the league leaders in blocks and steals percentage. He’s doing all this on a $5 million, one-year deal, which has proven to be shrewd business from team president Leon Rose. Noel absolutely electrified the Garden crowd with unbelievable blocks on Dorian Finney-Smith against Dallas and Brandon Ingram against New Orleans during this streak.

Gibson, one of Thibodeau’s most trusted men, has been a key veteran presence. Picked up off the proverbial scrap-heap he’s been the ultimate intangibles guy. He sets terrific high screens, and his defensive IQ is excellent. He seems to always be at the right place at the right time with his knowledge of Thibodeau’s system over the years.

Resurgent players key to Knicks’ playoff surge

Sunday afternoon’s win against the Pelicans was a case in point to their desire. With 7 seconds left and down three points, Derrick Rose‘s veteran savvy saved the game. Darting into the paint with the game on the line, he spots Reggie Bullock in the corner to drill the game-tying three with two seconds left to force overtime. This play was particularly impressive as Rose noticed Lonzo Ball edge off Bullock slightly, giving Rose enough window to make the play. This encapsulates the spirit this team shows. With huge contributions from some unheralded players.

Bullock has been consistent this year, especially from beyond the arc hitting 40% from three, his best from long range in four seasons. He has hit many clutch shots like the one mentioned above. Alec Burks is another example; he’s had a nice scoring year fulfilling various roles in either guard spot starting or off the bench. Burks has done whatever has been asked of him with aplomb. This is another example of a shrewd signing by the Knicks’ hierarchy this offseason.

D-Rose veteran savvy

Rose has proven to be an important contributor since his arrival by trade from Detroit. When he’s on the court this team looks faster, more efficient, and he creates easier looks for his teammates. Whilst he can rarely log major minutes each game due to his age, he still is productive. For instance, he is the only true point guard on the roster. It does show noticeably when he’s not on the court, they often look disjointed and slow and have coughed up leads with him off the floor.  His veteran savvy and awareness, as seen in Sunday’s clutch 23-point performance, shows how important the veteran former MVP has been to this team since trading for him.

Rookie draft steal

Immanuel Quickley is one of the steals of this year’s NBA draft. Full credit to the Knicks’ new leadership for using their Kentucky University ties to unearthing this talent, which the rest of the league had slept on. Especially the first half of the year, Quickley was among the most productive rookies and a significant contributor to the team’s early successes. While his numbers have dipped as the season has worn on as expected for a rookie, he’s still been revelatory and will be a big part of their future moving forward. He’s most comfortable in an off-guard role capable of creating his own shot from range. This is valuable in the modern offensive-minded NBA.

RJ’s work-ethic key to Knicks’ turn-around and helping playoff surge

Not Enough credit has been given to RJ Barrett. Picked third overall in the 2019 draft, Barrett had an underwhelming rookie year, but that may also be a reflection on his previous coach David Fizdale. Under the right guidance this year, he’s turned things around.

Even more than his massive improvements across the board, the most impressive aspect to Barrett is his attitude. He truly encapsulates the Knicks’ work ethic as key to their playoff surge. He has shown an unquenching thirst to succeed in New York and work at his game. Also, he isn’t afraid of taking the last shot which is a sign of real maturity for a 20-year-old player.

Furthermore, he reacts positively to adversity and takes it as a learning experience where he appears determined to succeed in the next game. This is a positive attribute for a young player unafraid of a big spot. It’s paid off as he’s been very impressive in this six-game winning streak. It’s time for more media to pay attention to Barrett as his trajectory is on the rise now. It’s still too early for projections, but he is looking like a franchise piece. Averaging 17.3 points per game, 44.8% shooting, and almost six rebounds. These numbers are good without factoring in his young age.

He has allayed concerns about his perimeter shot coming into the league. Under Thibodeau and thanks to his own hard work, his shot is improving as has the rest of his game. He still has areas of improvement–sometimes he can get caught backdoor defensively. He can also improve his handle and mid-range game. Yet he’s still only 20, and his game has improved immeasurably and will continue to grow.

Outlook this season and beyond

Knicks are in tremendous shape moving forward. They have a multitude of first-round picks, including two in this upcoming draft. They have a ton of cap space in free agency to make a signing or a major trade. Early rumors suggest they are interested in restricted free agent point guards Lonzo Ball or perhaps Jalen Brunson. Both of whom the team has reportedly been interested in. A point guard is a weakness that needs to be addressed this offseason. With the right additions, this could be an exciting playoff contender for years to come with Randle’s emergence as a burgeoning star.

This current Knicks team still has plenty of ambitions this year though. They have their eyes on a playoff spot for the first time in almost a decade, and their work ethic and mentality has everything to do with it. This team has shown they are not to be taken lightly. Entering a playoff series, their desire and attitude on defense mean they will not be an easy out in any playoff series if they make it. This team refuses to quit. After heart-breaking one-possession losses to title hopefuls the Brooklyn Nets and 76ers twice, a weaker-minded team would perhaps lose hope, but they have come right back and notched this impressive win streak to propel their playoff push. Despite a difficult schedule coming up, the Knicks have proven they will fight in every game to succeed.

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