New Yorkers fell in love with last year’s Knicks for so many noble reasons. The fans who had suffered through two decades of mostly dysfunctional, disconnected, and passion-free basketball were given a gift from the basketball gods — a team that mirrored the best of the city it represented.
These Knicks were aggressive, tough and open to opportunistic. As the pandemic was beginning to subside, the Garden transformed into a place where people could gather to recognize an act of selflessness. The fans couldn’t even get mad at their team for losing in the first round of the playoffs, because their team had shown so much good faith in getting there.
But today’s Knicks are nothing like yesterday’s Knicks. Fifteen games deep into the season, with Tom Thibodeau trying to figure out how and why last year’s chemistry took a fast break out of town, one point begs to be made:
Maybe the 2021-22 Knicks just aren’t that good.
On Wednesday, the Orlando Magic defeated them in a home contest for the second consecutive year. The Magic are the Eastern Conference’s worst team, now 4-11, meaning half of their victories this season have come at Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks have already lost five times. Thibodeau explained why Thibodeau’s 104-98 defeat was one of the worst.
“They played hard,” he said. “We didn’t.”
All-out effort is what professional athletes require. More than anything, Thibodeau’s teams over the years have been known for outworking their opponents, both in practice and on game nights. If that remains true in the practice gym, it sure doesn’t when the lights are bright on Broadway.
The Knicks committed 18 turnovers, and they weren’t strong enough on the boards, and they weren’t accurate enough on their 3-point attempts, missing 33 of 49. Julius Randle clearly isn’t the same player he was in all of last year’s glory, and Thibodeau’s starting unit isn’t getting any help from the scorers acquired over the summer, Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier.
Obi Toppin’s 18-minute playing time was intense and impressive, prompting Garden fans to chant his name repeatedly. So he was the only Knick who could be excused from a harsh but truthful postgame critique from Thibodeau, who didn’t even excuse himself.
“I have to do a better job of getting them ready,” he said. “That’s on me. So I’ll take a good hard look at it.”
And he should. The Knicks shouldn’t be 8-7. They shouldn’t be stepping out of bounds left and right, like a high school jayvee team, and they shouldn’t be throwing lazy endgame passes into the hands of Jalen Suggs, rookie, the way distinguished veteran Derrick Rose did, leading to a lethal Wendell Carter Jr. dunk.
Six out of nine Knicks teams have lost in the past six games. If this is some extended hangover from last season’s lovefest, it’s high time they snapped out of it. That’s assuming they are capable of snapping out of it.
On paper, the Knicks stand among the league’s deepest teams. On the floor, that depth doesn’t deliver the kind of consistent high-end play needed to nail down a spot in the postseason, never mind a playoff series victory or two.
The Knicks aren’t connected, and they don’t defend like Thibodeau’s teams are supposed to defend. “My job is to have them ready,” Thibs said. However, once more the Knicks weren’t ready to face an inferior opponent on home court.
“That falls on me,” Thibodeau said.
This is not how the Knicks’ story was supposed to play out. Thibodeau’s Year 2 was supposed to be the next step in the slow-but-sure progression to championship contention. In his first year in the dream job, the Knicks reached the playoffs. Even though the East was stronger, the possibility of reaching the conference semifinals seemed impossible.
However, it seems the conference got stronger while the Knicks got worse. When the home team needed stops Wednesday night, it sure could’ve used Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton on the floor. Fournier, Walker and Walker combined to score 10 points, shooting 4-for-13. Not that they’re the Knicks’ only problems.
“It’s a lot to fix,” Randle said. “S–t’s not going well for us right now.”
It is not.
“Even when we have leads,” Randle said, “I just feel like teams are way too comfortable for us. Defensive end, I think they just look at us and they get rhythm.”
Remember the days when players looked at Thibodeau defenses and felt trembled as they walked down the court? Maybe nobody is afraid of the Knicks anymore because they don’t play with enough confidence and purpose.
Maybe nobody is afraid of the Knicks anymore because they just aren’t that good.