For all of the planning, the hours of film work, the long practice sessions, the fortunes of a team sometimes rests on a ball hanging on a rim for what seems like forever before rolling in or out.
For the Knicks, wherever this unlikely season ends, it feels as if it began on April 9 when the Knicks hosted the Memphis Grizzlies at Madison Square Garden, a moment that came into focus as the Knicks faced the Grizzlies again in a brutal stretch of the season, testing the reality of just how far they have come.
That night in April the Knicks trailed by as many as 15, still down by 13 midway through the fourth quarter, before fighting back to tie the score. But in the final seconds of regulation Memphis’s Ja Morant drove into the lane, elevating as he pulled up for a shot over Alec Burks. The ball rimmed out and a tip-in attempt by Jonas Valanciunas missed, too.
The Knicks were 25-27, losers of five of their last six games and fading fast that night. But when Morant’s shot rolled out, the Knicks came back to win the game in overtime, launching a nine-game winning streak and 11 wins in the last 12 games.
Asked if he remembered that shot by Morant and wondered about the way fortunes shifted, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau admitted, for all of the preparation, it can simply be a make or miss league that determines fates.
"Well, I can recall ’99," Thibodeau said, thinking back to his days as a Knicks assistant coach when the Knicks knocked off the Miami Heat in the playoffs on a heroic shot. "The roll of Allan Houston’s shot changed a lot of lives. It's funny because oftentimes that that's the difference, you know, between moving on, going home.
"There’s good fortune involved in this. You can shoot the ball well and you know and it goes in and out. There’s nothing you can do about that. You know, you shoot it and it bounces all over the rim and goes in and you can advance. We got to the finals in ’99 because of that shot that Allan put up. It hit every part of the rim, probably hit the top of the backboard and everything else but it went in, and then we knocked off a one seed. It can happen. Obviously, that's why you want to always put as many things in your favor as possible. And sometimes you can defend a play perfectly and the guy can make it. That’s part of the game."
The Knicks had not won more than three games in a row all season long before that point and were rolling back and forth around the .500 mark. But since that win against the Grizzlies they have been the hottest team in the NBA and have moved all the way up to fourth place in the Eastern Conference with eight games left including Monday’s rematch against Memphis.
How these final games go — including a stretch of five straight road games against Western Conference teams all in the playoff race — will determine just how this team is remembered. While that 1999 team found a place in the hearts of fans by upending the top seed in the East in the opening round, this team came in with even lower expectations amid a COVID-19 challenge of a season.
"Every team is different," Thibodeau said. "That was an unusual season as well because it was a lockout year. [Latrell] Sprewell and [Marcus] Camby got hurt at the beginning and we barely made it in. So you never know how a season unfolds. But you’ve got to work as a unit and from that standpoint the willingness to sacrifice and play hard for each other is similar but the characteristics of these two teams are a lot different."