CLEVELAND — The Knicks embarked on a two-game road trip over the weekend that provided an opportunity to test themselves, to see what the three-game winning streak at home against likely lottery-bound teams really meant. The test revealed that the Knicks have a ways to go.
That’s not a bad thing as much as it is reality, one that they likely knew before they boarded the plane to face the Bucks and Cavaliers. What they are hasn’t been established this early in the season, but what they aren’t was revealed.
The Knicks saw what star power looks like in the form of Giannis Antetokounmpo on Friday and the undersized but equally athletic Donovan Mitchell on Sunday.
An 18-0 run by the Bucks and a 20-2 burst by the Cavs — both in the second half — spoiled otherwise undermanned but hard-fought performances. Antetokounmpo overpowered them and Mitchell picked them apart, scoring 38 points and finding open shooters every time the Knicks tried to help slow him down.
What the Knicks are for now is a hard-working group that is feeling its way through the early schedule, with the best piece they added, Jalen Brunson, only six games into his time leading on the floor.
“You never lose,” Obi Toppin said. “You always learn. We’re just going to take a look at the film and learn from it.”
“It’s good. It reveals exactly where we are and what we have to do,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “The thing is I thought we played well in the Milwaukee game, played very well in the first half . . . It shows us what we’re capable of, just have to do it with more consistency and for longer. I think we do that, we’ll be fine.”
The lessons learned on this trip must take hold quickly because the schedule doesn’t get easier. The Knicks will host Trae Young and the Hawks on Wednesday and then will face the 76ers in Philadelphia on Friday, with the Celtics arriving at Madison Square Garden the next night.
“We have a lot of room for improvement,” Brunson said. “I think we wouldn’t have it any other way. We have a lot of guys who work really hard and don’t quit. If this was easy, anybody would do it. We have to continue to get better. We have a lot of guys who work hard and don’t quit.”
The core of this team remains from the squad that earned the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference two seasons ago and then disappointed with a 37-45 record last season. Brunson is a drastic improvement at point guard over those teams, and Isaiah Hartenstein already has provided a different dimension at center than those teams had. But playing against the Bucks and Cavs showed that the Knicks won’t win relying on one star to carry them.
“It’s tough. We let one slip away,” Julius Randle said after the Knicks saw a nine-point lead disappear in the fourth quarter Sunday. “I feel like both games, we at least gave ourselves a chance to win. As the season goes on, our defense gets better, we tighten that up, we’ll learn how to win these games.”