As the Knicks prepared to take the floor against the Los Angeles Lakers Monday night it presented a test, just not the kind of test they might have anticipated when they first saw the schedule.
There was no LeBron James or Anthony Davis to face the Knicks at Madison Square Garden against a team believed to be a title favorite. Instead, with a patchwork lineup, the Lakers presented a challenge for the Knicks to prove that in a season where anything seems possible, are they prepared to take advantage of it?
Facing a Lakers squad that is a shadow of the team that was assembled to try to repeat as champions, the Knicks instead were trying to maintain their own momentum and belief as they played on the back end of a back-to-back set.
"That’s a big part of the NBA, establishing the proper habits," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. "If you look you can have an excuse every night. Whether it’s back-to-back, early start, late start, tough stretch of four [games] in six [days]. Delays, weather. COVID, there’s stuff you’ve got to deal with every time. The important thing is to have the mental toughness to get through any adversity you’re facing and find a way to come out on top. Hopefully, you build those habits every day. The more you put into something the harder it is to give in to something."
Those things might have been tested in recent weeks. The Knicks had lost five of six games, tumbling from their unlikely spot in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, down to eighth place. Then they fell behind by 14 points against Memphis Friday before staging a comeback, followed that up by building an 18-point lead over Toronto Sunday before surviving for the win.
The common denominators were the sort of things that they — and their fan base — could cling to for hope. Their stars, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, came up big in both games down the stretch when the Knicks needed them desperately. And they displayed the sort of fight that raised echoes of the old, albeit more talented Knicks teams that used to be regulars in the playoffs.
That hasn’t gone unnoticed around the league, even on the nights when they haven’t come through. The Knicks lost to lowly Minnesota two weeks ago, but still impressed Timberwolves rookie Anthony Edwards.
"Defense is effort," Edwards said. "If you give effort, you got great defense. If you watch New York night in and night out, they don’t have great single defenders. Whatever their defensive game plan is, that’s great. They play great defense as a team at all times. I love watching them play defense. I feel they’re the best defensive team in the league. They play hard. They take you out of your stuff and they pressure you."
That certainly warms the heart of Thibodeau, who was an assistant coach in New York during those years when the team was in contention and made defense and effort his calling card in every coaching stop in his career.
"Well, I think, in general, it's an important step for our team to take, to start with our defense," Thibodeau said. "And we wanted that to be a big part of our foundation. And hopefully, that's something that you can count on each and every night is your defense, your rebounding, keeping your turnovers down. We’ve talked about if we do those three things that'll position you to win and it has.
"I think you earn the respect of your peers by how hard you play, how smart you play and how together you play. So I think this team has demonstrated that willingness all season long. So I think they are in the respect of their peers and the officials, and everybody that's involved with the game and I think that's important for our organization."