An Empire Streak
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Going into the All-Star break, the New York Knicks were the fragile sixth seed in the Eastern Conference with a 33-27 record and a three-game win streak. With recent acquisition Josh Hart and no signs of slowing down over the break, the team extended their win streak to nine before finally losing to the Charlotte Hornets on March 7. The win streak, the Knicks’ longest since 2013, put them in the fifth seed behind only the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, and Cleveland Cavaliers. If the Knicks keep up this level of play, they may be a serious threat and could genuinely make a deep playoff run. Take a look at some of the factors that have contributed to their success thus far.
First, the Knicks’ offense has been extremely strong throughout the season. The team has built its offense around efficiency by minimizing turnovers, hitting free throws, and having bigs crash the boards for offensive rebounds. For the most part, this system seems to be working. Their offensive rating ranks fifth this season and ranked third during their win streak. Part of this mid-season offensive boom is the result of the players figuring each other out. “Our offense has always been good the whole year, but right now we’re clicking on just a different level,” forward RJ Barrett said after the Knicks’ win over the Brooklyn Nets on March 1. Not only has the team improved, but many individual players have had a huge impact on the past wins. One of these players is Hart.
The Knicks acquired Hart from the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for some bench players and a 2023 first-round draft pick. The trade has proved to be exceedingly beneficial for the Knicks. Hart has excelled in offensive and defensive rebounding, capitalized on fastbreaks, and empowered the bench squad, which ranks first this season. One of the key bench players, Immanuel Quickley, has put up big numbers with Hart. In the Knicks’ overtime win against a strong Celtics team on March 5, Quickley dropped 38 points, seven assists, and eight rebounds. Hart and Quickley have performed so well off the bench that Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, has routinely played them to finish close games.
The starting lineup has also improved drastically since last year. Guard Jalen Brunson has proved himself as the floor general for the Knicks’ offense. Brunson is averaging a career-high 23.8 points per game this season, 12 points more than his first four seasons in the NBA. Brunson especially flourishes in the fourth quarter and has come in clutch on multiple occasions. In fact, Brunson ranked second on the clutch player ladder during the Knicks’ win streak. New York has another scoring option in Julius Randle, who is also performing exceptionally well, averaging 25.2 points per game. Randle is shooting a career-high 34.9 percent from three-point range, giving Brunson a good kick-out option when attacking. “It’s just great… It makes the game easier for all of us. He’s making plays and being efficient, and we’re winning,” Randle said. In addition to the strong Brunson-Randle duo, centers Mitchell Robinson and Jericho Sims are impacting possessions with offensive rebounds for second-chance points. The Knicks’ offensive rebounding percentage ranks second this season.
The Knicks clearly have all the pieces to do well in the playoffs, but there are a few things that are preventing them from doing even better. One challenge has been injuries. Robinson was out for the entirety of January and the beginning of February due to thumb surgery, which severely impacted the Knicks’ interior defense. Just recently, Brunson injured his left foot, and the Knicks lost the next three straight following the injury. “It’s tough. He’s a big part of our team, a big part of what we do… He’s a leader on and off the floor,” Quickley said regarding Brunson’s absence. Another challenge has been consistency. Earlier this year, the Knicks had an eight-game win streak followed by a five-game losing streak. A similar situation is playing out with their most recent win streak.
With the current standings, the Knicks would face off against the fourth seed, the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Knicks have gone 2-1 against the Cavs, with their one loss coming at the beginning of the season. In their two wins, the Knicks played outstanding defense against the Cavs’ top two scorers, Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland. Mitchell had a 37 FG percentage and Garland a 30.8 FG percentage across these two games, which pales in comparison to their season averages, 47.8 percent and 47 percent, respectively. If the Knicks can continue to improve their defense, they can easily get past the first round. The second round might prove to be a challenge, however, as they would most likely face the one-seed Milwaukee Bucks. As the regular season comes to a close, we’ll have to wait and see what seed the Knicks end up in and what changes Thibodeau will make. Regardless, when the Knicks are healthy and playing consistently at their best, they could be the team to make an unlikely playoff run.