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.
Those Knicks were tough, aggressive and opportunistic. Just as the pandemic started to back off some, the Garden became the place to gather and celebrate an exercise in selfless achievement. 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.
Wednesday night, they lost a home game to the Orlando Magic for the second time this 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. This 104-98 defeat was the most unforgivable of all, and Thibodeau explained why.
“They played hard,” he said. “We didn’t.”
Of course, the bare minimum required of a professional athlete is all-out effort. 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 was electric and acrobatic in his 18 minutes of playing time, inspiring the Garden crowd to repeatedly chant his name. 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.”
As 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.
The Knicks have now lost six of their past nine. 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. But once again, the Knicks were not ready to beat an inferior opponent on their home floor.
“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. The Knicks made the playoffs in his first season in his dream job, and even though the East muscled up, a trip to the conference semis this time around seemed an ultra-feasible scenario.
But so far it appears the conference got stronger and the Knicks got weaker. When the home team needed stops Wednesday night, it sure could’ve used Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton on the floor. Their offensive-minded replacements, Fournier and Walker, combined for 10 points on 4-for-13 shooting. 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.”
No it is most definitely 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.”
What happened to the days when teams looked down the floor at a Thibodeau defense and trembled? 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.