On Thursday, they rested. No, really.
After winning their eighth straight game and ascending into fourth place in the Eastern Conference with a hard-fought overtime victory over the Atlanta Hawks, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau declared it a blackout day. The practice facility shut, the keycards that allow the extra work after hours deactivated.
"Blackout day is an order from Thibs," Knicks rookie Immanuel Quickley said. "He basically just declared that nobody’s allowed to be on the court, doing stuff. We’ve got an early game coming up so he declared that nobody is supposed to come in. But the guys that want to work probably will still come in anyway . . . Nobody is allowed in the gym. I’ll still find a way in."
And with that explanation you might have the best reason for the Knicks rising to their surprising place in the Eastern Conference standings. In a time of load management, a schedule condensed to cram a season in, and a demanding coach in Thibodeau, the Knicks' roster has exceeded the expectations of anyone outside the locker room by adopting a work ethic that mimics the coach.
If you think it was just talk from Quickley, remember that after Tuesday night’s win over Charlotte, with a back-to-back game coming the next night, while Thibodeau was conducting his postgame interviews, Quickley and Obi Toppin found their way back onto the Madison Square Garden court to work through shooting drills with assistant coaches.
That explanation might tell you why the team has become a dangerous perimeter threat — Julius Randle hit 6 of 8 three-pointers in a 40-point effort Wednesday that has him at 40% from long range this season after converting just 27.7% last season. RJ Barrett is at 38.6%, a figure that comes after enduring an 0-for-21 stretch early in the season. As a team the Knicks are sixth in the NBA in three-point percentage, shooting 38.4%. In the last 10 games they are converting 42%, second only to the Los Angeles Clippers.
The shooting may not be their calling card, but it is a hint at the work that they have put in. And work is the calling card. If the keycards are turned off, expect Quickley or Barrett to be prying open a window at the training facility.
"We've put a lot of time into the shooting," Thibodeau said. "So guys come in at night. Our shootarounds and off days are film days, but also shooting days. So they’ve made a very serious commitment and we knew it was a big concern going into training camp, how well can we shoot the three. And I think by working the way that they worked it's given them confidence, and I've always said, the two biggest things with shooting are confidence and concentration. So, if you make that commitment to put the work in and improve your shot and you have a checklist on your shot, it helps."
In the tightly packed East the Knicks are just 1 1/2 games ahead of Miami, which sits in seventh place where teams fall into the play-in tournament. And the schedule is tough with all but one of the remaining 12 games against teams in the playoff picture, including a six-game western road trip.
But the work remains the thing and if the players have echoed Thibodeau’s work ethic they also have taken his mantra that this is just another step.
"It was like a playoff-type atmosphere," Barrett said of the overtime win Wednesday night. "A lot of bodies flying around, very tough, very physical down there. Everybody's working. We're a team. We’re always in the gym. It’s showing out there on the court. I feel also that it's kind of somebody different every night is going out there and playing well for us. We always say it could come from anywhere, it could be anybody that goes out there and makes the plays to win the game for us. It's a testament to our work.
"We keep getting tested every game and we're responding. No matter what happened, we’re responding . . . It's great to see how resilient this team is . . . I think it exceeds everybody else's expectations, but we know what we could do. We know who we are. We're showing it every night. We're going to continue to do that, continue to stay together and that's all that's important."
Notes & quotes: The Knicks were completing a multiyear contract with Norvel Pelle on Thursday, keeping him on the roster for the remainder of this season with a partial guarantee for next season.