Taking the court at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, the Knicks found themselves in a place where few thought they’d be, hosting another postseason night before more than 16,000 fans, in the spotlight rather than the lottery and playing with their season on the line.
It would have been bold to predict this, even in their own locker room, when the season began with low expectations and a pandemic raging that had restricted the resumption of the previous season to a bubble restart and this season's beginning to empty arenas with tarps spread over the seats.
But if few would have predicted the Knicks could be here, still playing for something magical and inspiring, the Knicks wouldn’t have predicted that they’d be in these circumstances. The Knicks cling to their postseason dreams, down 3-1 in the best-of-seven series to the Atlanta Hawks and having the boastful, demeaning comments from Atlanta center Clint Capela read to them over and over again — claims that they were being exposed as a phony tough team.
Toughness, resiliency and overachieving were the descriptions that had brought the Knicks this far. Now with a chance to prove them either true or hollow, they have another night at the Garden. And just as they have been since training camp, before the game begins, they refused to listen to any notion that they were doing anything other than going out to win a game.
"I ain’t thinking about that," RJ Barrett said when asked about the possibility of the season being over and what this run meant to the organization. "We’re winning tonight. I ain’t thinking about that."
Coach Tom Thibodeau was the same, preaching the same sort of focus he’d pounded into the team from the start. "The challenge for us is just to stay focused," he said. "Concentrate on what we need to do and be ready for the first quarter. That’s it."
When it comes to an end, whether that's Wednesday or Friday back in Atlanta or whenever that final loss arrives, the Knicks will be left with hard choices to make. How much of this season was an anomaly, their success rooted in the odd circumstances of this condensed season which they managed to navigate better than most.
The Knicks avoided the shutdowns from practice and canceled games, suffered few COVID-19 absences and managed to keep Julius Randle and Barrett on the court for nearly every game (Randle missed one game and Barrett played in every one). And they played hard, focused under Thibodeau every game as if it were a playoff contest — a decided advantage until it became the actual playoffs and the talented opposition approached it that way, too.
Still, this season was a building block for a franchise that had become the laughingstock of the NBA, compiling the worst record in the league over the last 20 years without a playoff appearance since 2013. The Knicks established something, shedding the dysfunctional labels and jokes and earning the adoration of the fan base again for playing with the sort of work ethic that was revered more at the Garden than any amount of star power.
"Have you seen the crowd, seen the emotions around the city?" Taj Gibson said. "That shows you the love. I’ve been around a long time. I’ve been around some really loud places. The atmosphere of the Garden in the playoffs, just the atmosphere around the city, just people constantly reminding you about the game, encourage you every day.
"You go down to get a bagel, a cup of coffee, everybody is always just giving you good praise about things you’re doing to try to change the culture. The city pays attention. But we don’t feel like we’re done yet. Still got a lot to prove, a lot more to overcome."