In the disappointed locker room after the magical run was over, when the winning streak finally came to an end at nine straight Monday night, Tom Thibodeau had a message for his team. It wasn’t one of regret and it wasn’t one of congratulations. It was instead the same message he has pushed on them nearly every day this season.
"On to the next," Derrick Rose said shortly after the game ended. "You have to have amnesia. You have to have a sense of urgency when you go out and play as well . . . Just try to get better every day. And try to learn from every mistake. [Monday night’s loss] hurts, for sure. Losing a close game like that. But if anything we can take some lessons and learn from our mistakes and keep growing as a team I think we’re going to be better for it."
Rose is a fitting conduit for Thibodeau’s message, one of few players along with Taj Gibson on the roster who has not only been through the playoff wars, but has been there alongside Thibodeau. And when the Knicks took the court at the Garden Monday against the NBA’s second-best team this season, the Phoenix Suns, they were provided with the sort of test that they can expect over the final 10 games of the season as they battle for playoff positioning. They will then get, what for some, will be the first real taste of playoff intensity.
The Knicks finish off a six-game homestand against the struggling Chicago Bulls and then head to a six-game West Coast trip — the last five against teams in the top eight spots in the Western Conference playoff race. Much of the Knicks roster has not been through the rigors of the playoffs, however, players like Rose and Taj Gibson, who have been through it, are helping guide them now.
"That was the great value I think in having Derrick and Taj," Thibodeau said. "Both guys have been through it. I think they have a great understanding of what we’re trying to get accomplished. . . . We’ve been through a lot of battles together.
"They’re great guys, they’re team-first guys. And I thought that was important for us to get this thing off the ground. And based on the way Taj played last year here, I kept close tabs on him, and I knew in the locker room, I knew what he means to a team, he’s the ultimate teammate, as is Derrick. So if you want team-first guys, you want hard-playing guys, you go out and find them. They both have proven that. They’ve both had a lot of success. You look at their overall winning percentage throughout their careers, it’s very high. So I thought having guys that have won in the past it would be an important part of this."
If these games have felt like a playoff intensity, those who have been through it know that the next level up will be huge. The Suns, without a day off to prepare for the Knicks after playing in Brooklyn Sunday, came in with a plan to get the ball out of Julius Randle’s hands — aggressively double-teaming him as the pass was arriving to him. It was a lesson, but maybe one that the Knicks are already starting to soak in.
Asked if the streak had exceeded reasonable expectations for the team, RJ Barrett said, "A reasonable goal for who? For us, it’s where we want to be. We want more. Always expect more from myself. This wasn’t luck. This wasn’t anything but work. We worked hard for what we’re doing right now. We deserve everything. We’ve got 10 games to keep pushing and try to solidify what we want."