It’s finally happened.
The Knicks ran through six coaches, five general managers and countless head-scratching draft picks, including Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox, to get to this place. They endured the promise and then disappointment of the Kristaps Porzingis era. And, as was on full display in their 142-118 win over the Nets Wednesday, they survived the humiliating snub of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and ended up all the better.
Now, for the first time since they beat the Boston Celtics in the first round of the 2013 playoffs with a team that included All-Stars Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, the Knicks are good. Possibly really good.
Yet, it’s not just their potential to get past the opening round of the playoffs for the first time in a decade that makes this the most interesting Knicks team in recent memory. It’s the fact that this team plays with a similar attitude to the one that the current millennial Knicks fans grew up watching.
Like the Knicks of the 1990s, these Knicks do not get outhustled. They don’t get outworked. Yes, there are teams in the East with better players — see the Milwaukee Bucks, see the Celtics, see the Nets a month ago — but the Knicks are one of the few teams that rarely seems to take a game off or even a quarter.
With the win over the Nets, the Knicks have now won seven in a row. They jumped out to a 47-29 lead over the Nets in the first quarter, while shooting 18-for-23 from the field and 9-for-11 from three. They continued to keep their foot on the accelerator and never looked back.
The Knicks have a grittiness and a toughness that is not limited to their top players. Though Jalen Brunson led them with 39 points against the Nets, other players know how to step up when needed. When neither Julius Randle nor Brunson had big scoring nights in an important win over Boston Monday, it was Mitchell Robinson who kept the Celtics at bay by playing great defense, grabbing 13 rebounds, adding two blocks and 10 points.
“We’re on a mission,” Robinson said. “We wanna be in the playoffs. Everybody wants to be there. Everybody on the team is gonna fight.”
For the past three years, the biggest thing the Knicks have had to fight is the national perception that they were the No. 2 NBA team in their two-team market. While Knicks fans have always outnumbered Nets fans, it had to be more than a little humiliating to lose nine straight to the star-studded Nets while having to watch them lead off “SportsCenter” almost every night.
That all changed at the trade deadline when the Nets dealt Durant days after swapping Irving and the Knicks added Josh Hart from Portland.
The Nets have gone 2-6 since the trade deadline, while the Knicks are 7-1 and 7-0 since Hart joined the rotation.
That seven-game win streak includes a 124-106 win over the Nets on Feb. 13, ending a three-year stretch where the Knicks had been shoved around by the team from Brooklyn.
In an era of superstars and superteams, chemistry can be overlooked. More than anything, that seems to be what is pushing this Knicks team. As coach Tom Thibodeau has repeatedly pointed out, this is a team that likes each other and is willing to sacrifice for the greater good.
That, of course, wasn’t always the case in Brooklyn during the KD-Kyrie era as Irving played in only 29 games last season because he was unwilling to take the COVID vaccine that would have allowed him to play in all the Nets’ home games.
Thibodeau, who was an assistant on the Knicks teams of the ’90s, was asked about the similarities between the two teams. While it’s true that this group isn’t scoring 80-something points on a nightly basis, he says the two eras do have a lot in common.
“We talk about that a lot,” Thibodeau said in his pregame news conference. “Every decade the style of play can be different. Fast, slow, obviously shooting the three everyone does today is different. The things that go into winning are the same. Unselfishness. Hard work. Discipline.”
In other words, play like the teams your fans grew up watching.