HomeSportsHow Knicks keep winning as they move closer to No. 4 seed...

How Knicks keep winning as they move closer to No. 4 seed in Eastern Conference

February 24, 2023; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) celebrates with guard Jalen Brunson (11) after the game against the Washington Wizards during the second half at Capital One Arena. / Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Knicks are one of the hottest teams in the NBA, fresh off their seventh straight victory in a rout of their crosstown rivals. On Thursday, the Knicks start fifth in the Eastern Conference and are just 1.5 games away from home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.

It’s been a remarkable turnaround as just three months ago they were sitting at 10-13 with their head coach in the hot seat and roster construction in question. What has changed since then?

December 4 is the pivotal date that New York fans refer to — that’s when Tom Thibodeau shook up the rotation and sparked a frenzied rally in his team. Benched were better paid but ineffective veterans in favor of younger, more playful options.

The results are something out of the fanbase’s dreams. New York has gone 27-14 from that point, jumping from an average offense and 23rd ranked defense before moving to a top-five offense and top-seven net score.

The rotation change was the start of an eight-game winning streak, but many of those wins were against lesser opponents. The Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors had a lot of injuries, the Charlotte Hornets and Chicago Bulls were low profile, with some of them coming down to the bone.

A five-game losing streak suggested some correction was on the way, but the Knicks looked different, barely coming up short in those games and responding with another tear of seven wins in eight games. Launch center Mitchell Robinson went down with an injury soon after and missed nearly a month, posing a legitimate challenge to New York’s new winning streak.

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It didn’t matter. The Knicks held firm and went 8-6 in his absence, thanks in part to a trade deadline upgrade Josh Hartand has yet to lose since taking over, while having a +67 in four games since Robinson returned.

They’ve had some signature wins – beating the Boston Celtics twice, the Cleveland Cavaliers twice and the Philadelphia 76ers is no mean feat.

There’s plenty of credit to hand out Leon Rose‘s roster build, to Thibodeau’s mid-season switch all the way down the roster, but we have to start with Julius Randle And Jalen Brunson. To say the two played as All-Stars wouldn’t do them justice.

Randle has 27.2 points, 11.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists on 46.2 percent shooting from the field and 35.3 percent from three since the rotation change. He’s played 15 30-point games in that stretch, three of them over 40, and he’s remained the NBA’s iron man, playing every night.

Perhaps most impressive was his leadership, especially on the defensive end. Not only is it a complete 180 from last year’s pout, but the great form he’s been in coupled with his defense efforts has maximized his potential as a stopper and set an example for the rest of the team.

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One problem the Knicks had early in the season, even though their roster on paper showed before that, was the lack of one-on-one defensive stoppers against the NBA’s elite 6-foot-8 plus wings. When RJ Barrett And Quentin Grimes falls short, Randle has been that guy, smothering names like Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram And Kawhi Leonard in recent games.

Brunson has been a one-man army offensively, recording 25.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists on 48.5 percent shooting from the field and 45.1 percent (!) shooting from three since December 4. He may have missed out on the All-Star team, but just secured Player of the Month honors after putting up 28.4 points per game in February, including two 40-point blowouts.

The small guard has been a puzzle to the opposing defense since he started making nearly half of his threes, largely off the bounce, adapting to more aggressive schemes thrown his way. Nothing seems to faze him and he can take any picture he wants.

The New York Greats — Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein – did a fantastic job setting the paint and securing the boards at both ends. Their presence on the offensive glass deflates opponents who need to reset their defense after finally putting a stop on one of the league’s most physical, draining teams.

On the wings, Barrett and Grimes have had their good and bad weeks, but they defend extremely well, knocking down enough catch-and-shoot threes to spread the offense and create attacks on closeouts. Barrett is crucial as an offensive midfielder who can create something when their main options aren’t right, and had a huge December and January before slipping a bit.

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Immanuel Quickly has been the X factor, turning a slow start with extra minutes and one ball control Derrick Rose sat on the sofa. He has built a sixth man of the year case behind his elite defense and explosive shots.

In his last 33 games, Quickley averages just under 16 points per night, with 48.3 percent coming from the field and 39.7 percent coming from the field, chasing boards and harassing possessions. It comes as no surprise that he has one of the best points differentials on the team, with Thibodeau often finishing tight games.

Then there’s the newest addition to Hart, who seems to have been taken from Thibodeau’s dreams and has yet to lose a game in a Knicks uniform. New York outscores teams by 25.7 points per 100 possessions when on the field.

Expect automatic energy when he checks in. No opponent’s defensive rebound is safe, as Hart is there to fly in from the three-point line to try to deflect or steal it.

Lazy passes are swept from the air and taken coast to coast for a layup. He’s managed to average 12.4 points on ridiculous shooting splits by seemingly wanting it more than everyone else and relying on his jumper again.

This fabrication of buying individual talent into an effort plan has resulted in the best Knicks team we’ve seen since 2012-2013. The Knicks won 54 games that season and have maintained a pace of 54 wins since the rotation change.

The playoffs will tell us how much of this is real, but these Knicks seem built to meet that challenge. We’re witnessing one of the best plays in recent franchise history, which may not mean much, but it was incredible to watch.

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