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Gritty Knicks conjuring images of successful teams in franchise history

New York Knicks guard Elfrid Payton (6) shoots

New York Knicks guard Elfrid Payton (6) shoots over Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, May 7, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri) Credit: AP/Rick Scuteri

It was 51 years ago Saturday that the Knicks were the center of the basketball universe, celebrating — and celebrated — as the NBA champions with a historic Game 7 win over the Lakers. The 50th anniversary fete never materialized with the pandemic keeping the still-revered group from reuniting at Madison Square Garden and maybe there was some justice in that. Remembering the greatest of the Knicks teams when the team was limping through another dysfunctional season might have felt like another PR stunt.

With limited capacity and travel still iffy the chance to honor that 1969-70 team remains on hold. But with a return to the postseason and, more important, a throwback in style, the Knicks are at least honoring the memory of Knicks teams past this season. And perhaps, finally, they are putting New York back on the map as a destination for players.

The Knicks already have qualified for the postseason and barring a collapse over the final five games should secure a top-six spot in the playoffs, bypassing the play-in tournament. But more than just the wins and losses, as they head toward the finish line they have begun to draw respect from the opposition rather than mocking derision that accompanied the losses piled up over recent years.

When the Knicks fell apart Friday night in Phoenix, blowing a second-half lead on the way to a one-sided loss, there were flagrant fouls and technicals. But still, when it was over, the Suns' leader, Chris Paul, had only kind words.

"That team right there, man, they play the right way," Chris Paul said. "They play with the right energy. They make every game feel like a playoff game. They don't take any possessions off."

And isn’t that what Knicks fans have really wanted through all of the turnover of coaches and front office personnel, from the constantly shifting rosters and chasing — mostly unsuccessful — of stars? The championships of 1970 and 1973 are distant memories and just YouTube highlights for younger fans and even the hard-nosed teams led by Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy of the 1990s feel like yellowing pages in a history book.

But what Tom Thibodeau has done this season is create a throwback. The loss in Phoenix was the second straight lopsided defeat on this six-game road trip with stops still to come in Los Angeles against the Clippers Sunday afternoon and the Lakers Tuesday night. But when asked about the challenge, Thibodeau said, "I like these games for our team. I think it shows us where we are and the things we have to work on. And that old saying about iron sharpens iron, hopefully, we can improve and it'll help us down the road."

The Knicks are certainly not the most talented team in the NBA. Julius Randle has emerged as an All-Star this season and maybe even will find a place on the All-NBA Team. RJ Barrett has shaken off the criticism that followed him as the No. 3 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and risen as a 20-year-old building block. Still, they are seen as a team that has overachieved and exceeded expectations even if they won’t admit it in their locker room.

Outside their own roster though, players are noticing. Whether it was 36-year-old Chris Paul or the face of the youth movement in the NBA, Zion Williamson, there is praise for what has surfaced at Madison Square Garden.

"I’m glad you asked that,’’ Zion Williamson said when asked about facing the Knicks in New York for the first time last month. "New York is the mecca of basketball. I love playing here. I played here in college [while a teammate with Barrett at Duke]. This is my first time playing in the pros. This atmosphere, whether they’re cheering for you or booing you, it’s amazing. Outside of New Orleans, obviously, this might be my favorite place to play. I can’t lie to you."

Paul’s teammate, Mikal Bridges, added Friday morning, "They’re a really good team. Really well-coached, defend really well, and on the offensive end they’re playing unbelievable. They’re talented. They’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. A lot of credit to them. They got the guys that are going to put in the work, play hard for their coaches and teammates, and that’s what they’re doing."

Will Randle or Barrett or even Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson be remembered like Willis Reed and Walt Frazier? Or even like Dave Stallworth or Mike Riordan? Charles Oakley or Anthony Mason? That will depend on what comes next. Maybe it doesn’t take a title, but it takes doing things the right way. And as they head toward the postseason, finally, that is something worth honoring for the franchise.

Coming soon?

The Knicks officially announced the signing of Argentine combo guard Luca Vildoza this week. And while he is planning on joining the team as soon as possible — already on the roster and eligible for the postseason, Thibodeau sounded doubtful that he would actually arrive in time to help this season.

"It’s going to take some time for him to get over here," Thibodeau said. "And our scouts really liked him so we’ll have an opportunity to evaluate him over the summer. There’s a whole process that he’s going to have to go through. So it’s more of a summer thing.

"He’s got to go through a number of things to get cleared and it’s going to take time. So we’ll just take it step by step and go from there.

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