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As Knicks roll in preseason opener, NBA GMs predict a step back this season

Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Knicks greets

Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Knicks greets Kemba Walker #8 during a substitution in the first half against the Indiana Pacers at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The Knicks took their first step of the preseason and, as you would expect from a Tom Thibodeau-coached team, it was not a tentative one.

Thibodeau’s squad came out with the same intensity that burned through his first season in New York but did it with the added firepower of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier as they rolled to an easy 125-104 win over the Indiana Pacers at Madison Square Garden.

It’s hard to translate anything from a preseason game to the regular season and perhaps more important for the Knicks, to the postseason. But it was still an encouraging first step, showing that, like last year, the Knicks would play every game as if it was their last. And the first test yielded mostly positive results with the newcomers to the starting lineup, Walker and Fournier. The duo delivered the offensive firepower to take pressure off Julius Randle’s shoulders.

In this game Randle played 30 minutes and had 20 points, nine rebounds and two assists, while Barrett added 17 points and Fournier and Walker each had 12.

It was the first step in the Knicks quest to prove that last year’s success was not an aberration and that the doubters have it wrong. The NBA released its Annual GM Survey Tuesday and in it, the competition backed up the oddsmakers who have predicted a step back in the standings for the Knicks after the surprising 2020-21 season.

While the Knicks finished with a 41-31 record, earning the fourth-seed and a playoff spot and arguably improved their roster, oddsmakers in Las Vegas have put an over/under on them of 41 1/2 this season. And league GM’s did not give them a single vote to finish in the top four in the East this season.

In the survey the Nets were picked to win the East with Milwaukee second, followed by Miami, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Boston and Indiana. The Pacers, coincidentally, were the opponent at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night.

"I could care less," Walker said. "It’s like that every year. Teams come out of nowhere all the time. Most of these GMs never played basketball. Let’s be real. Who cares what they think? I could care less. We believe in ourselves, you know. We’re going to play so hard every night and that’s going to give us a chance to win every night. I could care less what a GM has to say."

While the Knicks improved their offensive firepower they do still have to prove that they can repeat the defensive success they had last season, ranking third in defensive rating under Thibodeau. The Knicks coach got voted as the coach with the best defensive schemes. Last season, it wasn’t just the defense that carried the Knicks as Thibodeau was named the NBA Coach of the Year and Randle earned Most Improved Player honors while getting a second-team All-NBA spot.

The Knicks managed to navigate the uncertainties of a condensed schedule without getting derailed by COVID-19 outbreaks that shut down many other teams. Boston and Miami, two of the teams the GM’s predicted to jump past the Knicks, were both shut down from practice at times and lost key players for long stretches.

To their credit, the Knicks never had to shut down practice and lost only two players to positive tests — Derrick Rose and Alec Burke. Under Thibodeau, they were prepared for every game and maximized their abilities as they exceeded expectations. But in the postseason when Atlanta was prepared for the Knicks they disposed of them in five games. Thibodeau has put the success — and the ending — of last season behind him and stressed that this group is starting from zero.

Notes & quotes: In addition to Thibodeau as Best Defensive Schemes the GM’s named Madison Square Garden as the third-best homecourt advantage and Kemba Walker as the fifth-most underrated offseason acquisition. The Knicks also received votes for best defensive team, best overall moves and steal of the draft for where they picked Miles McBride (36th). Thibodeau also received votes for best in-game adjustments . . . Mitchell Robinson remained out as he rehabilitates his broken right foot Thibodeau said that Nerlens Noel was held out as a rest day. "It was an opportunity — I wanted to get a look at a couple guys. So, this gives us this opportunity, and I just thought where we were, we’ll do it this game. We may have one guy out each game just to get a look at some guys that are maybe not initially in the rotation."

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