Throughout a surprising run to a playoff spot last season and even in an impressive start to this season the Knicks could count on two things: outworking their opponent and relying on Julius Randle to lead them.
But even as they have jumped out to a 5-2 record to start the season there have been odd if not alarming indications that something isn’t quite right yet.
After they collapsed and saw a 15-point lead disappear to an undermanned Toronto Raptors squad at Madison Square Garden on Monday night there were admissions that the Raptors worked harder. It has been a trend in half the games with the team playing down to the level of the opposition, which is discouraging since the Knicks have only recently ascended from that underdog level.
They lost at home to Orlando two days after destroying the Magic on the road and barely survived against a gutted New Orleans squad Friday as much of the roster seemed to go through the motions after building an early lead.
"I think they just played harder than us, honestly," RJ Barrett said after Monday night’s loss. "They played harder than us. In the NBA, most of the time, the harder playing team is going to win.
"They took it to us . . . When we get outplayed, outworked, it’s not a good feeling. It’s definitely not a good feeling. That’s something we hang our hat on is coming out there and outworking everybody."
Randle acknowledged it and added, "We should’ve learned from that already."
The Knicks have talked about the demands put in place since Tom Thibodeau took over as coach before last season. Being in shape and working hard are non-negotiable traits, and as they have grown the players have taken that responsibility on themselves.
But that has been spotty at best this season and the increase in talent and depth on the roster has hidden some of the flaws in the early going. The Knicks have scored with three-point shooting and a much faster pace of play. But it has also opened them up to stretches like the one they endured Monday when they surrendered 50 points in a span of just over 12 minutes spanning part of the second quarter and the start of the second half.
"Their team played hard," Thibodeau said. "That’s usually what happens when a team plays shorthanded, They’re going to play with great intensity and if you don’t have an edge it’s not going to be good. Every player in this league is a great player. You can’t get here without being great. Everyone’s capable of beating you. Have to play with an edge. Have to play for 48 minutes."
Randle was the player who got the Knicks through any struggles last season, leading them in performance and mindset. But something has seemed missing this season as he adapts to playing with the added offensive threats around him. He has willingly moved the ball, and his assist and turnover numbers are similar to last year’s numbers. But there has been frustration, too, as teams have moved to take the ball out of his hands. He took just nine shots in Saturday’s win at New Orleans and after an 18-point first quarter Monday he was 2-for-8 with three turnovers.
Randle shrugged off the notion that anything Toronto did changed his output or approach.
"A loss is always disappointing," he said. "You play every game to win. But you can’t sulk on it. We’ve got to learn from it, keep moving. Got to get ready for this two-game road trip [to Indiana and Milwaukee]. It’s going to be tough."
Notes & quotes: Both Nerlens Noel (knee) and Taj Gibson (sprained left ankle) are listed as questionable for Wednesday at Indiana.