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Knicks see defending NBA champion Bucks as a model of success

RJ Barrett, left, of the Knicks drives towards

RJ Barrett, left, of the Knicks drives towards the basket against Pat Connaughton, right, of the Bucks at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 27, 2020. Credit: AP/Mike Strobe

MILWAUKEE — Julius Randle was home, the Knicks' season having come to a disappointing finish a few weeks earlier, but he watched closely as the Milwaukee Bucks made their way to the NBA championship. He watched and he admired and as he thought about what they’d done and how they’d done it, he got chills.

"It motivates me extremely," Randle said. "I remember watching it and getting chills. I’m getting chills right now just thinking about it. Because I know personally the grind and effort and how much time it takes to continue to get better, how much time it takes you really have to put in.

"And I know how special that moment is and how hard it is to get there. Because I know how much time I put in. I haven’t gotten there yet. None of us have gotten there. It’s hard. This league is really hard. And doing it the way they did, organically, was really cool. When you asked me, I got chills thinking about it. I don’t think there’s no better place to do it than here. I’ve always said there’s no better place than New York."

For Randle and his Knicks teammates who admired the Bucks' building plan and success from afar, the time for admiration is over right now. After a 5-1 start to the season, the Knicks arrive with a two-game losing streak and a dose of reality that despite last season’s achievements and the offseason additions, there is a long way to go to prove that they belong in the class of the Bucks.

After a brief shining moment atop the Eastern Conference, the Knicks have quickly tumbled down to the seventh spot after a wire-to-wire loss in Indiana.

"We knew. We weren’t fooling ourselves," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Just looking at the players on each team, the East is loaded. So every night you gotta bring it. And so, an important part of winning is playing with an edge. Sometimes, you can feel good about yourself and you get knocked down. You don’t feel too good in this league, because players are too good. We gotta pick ourselves up and have a determination about it. I always say, you have to be mentally tough when you’re facing adversity, and that’s where we are right now."

Still, the Knicks could look to the Bucks and see a team that did just the things that they preach. While previous Knicks regimes attempted a quick fix, chasing the shiniest of free-agent acquisitions, they have managed to lift themselves by finding improvement from the likes of Randle and RJ Barrett while surrounding them with players who fit a role. In that respect, they are not unlike the Bucks, who patiently waited for Giannis Antetokounmpo to develop into a two-time MVP and fit unheralded players around him. Milwaukee absorbed a fair share of disappointments before rising to the title last season.

"The one thing with them is that they always had that belief and that mindset," Evan Fournier said. "And I think the adversity with the Nets and they almost lost that series. It was that close. But they always had that belief and Giannis was really always intense. His focus was only on winning."

"Honestly it was great to see," Randle said. "It was beautiful to watch simply because the aspect of they built it from the ground up. They didn’t put a super team together or whatever it was. These guys were in the mud every day grinding the thing out

"They took some lumps along the way there trying to figure it out. But clearly, it worked and figured it out and did something that’s very unique, especially in today’s league, as far as building something like that and not putting a bunch of players together. They really built it. There’s nothing wrong with either way. A championship is a championship. I don’t care, any way you win. Especially to see that, especially for a guy like Giannis to be there after getting drafted, working his way into the player he is and then winning a championship, that’s special."

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