You couldn’t blame the Knicks if they felt good about themselves as they took the court in Sacramento on Friday night. With three straight wins, they had evened their record at 8-8, exceeding expectations and establishing themselves as something more than a franchise counting Ping-Pong balls and dreaming of the draft lottery
It’s been three years since the Knicks didn’t have a losing record this far into the season — and they finished that season 29-53. So the 103-94 loss to the Kings that pushed them back to a losing record provided a message for the team. There is a long way to go and the Knicks are still a team that needs to play desperate every night.
"Yeah, absolutely," Julius Randle said. "That’s really what it’s all about, especially coming off the second night of a back-to-back. It’s all about being a dog, just all about fighting, our energy. It really had nothing to do with them. We just got to come out with the right mindset that under the circumstances, we’re going to do whatever it takes to get a win."
"Most definitely, we haven’t done anything yet," RJ Barrett added. "I think we’re trying to still learn and figure out how to win and how to deal with a team and how as a team to bring it every night. We’re still figuring that out. We’ve got to have that underdog mentality every single game."
For the players on this team who were here through last season’s 21-45 struggles, you’d think it would be easy to hold on to that underdog mentality. But a night after the Knicks started their four-game road trip by routing Golden State, they found themselves outworked by the Kings, a team that arrived with a 5-10 record and four straight losses — which gave the Kings that hint of desperation.
"That’s the challenge of the league," Tom Thibodeau said. "You win some, you lose some, but the next day — and usually you see it in the playoffs all the time, the team that [loses] the previous game comes in with more of an edge the next game.
"That’s why you never let your guard down or feel too good about yourself. You’ve got to be ready to go from start to finish.
"There’s different challenges each night, whether it’s travel or back-to-back, you may be shorthanded, whatever it may be. You want to build that consistency in terms of how you prepare, how hard you play, how smart you play and how together you play.
"It’s a team sport, so you’re relying on everyone doing it together. If we fall short in one area, that can impact the execution of either your offense or your defense. You want to learn from each situation and come back ready for the next one."
If there is anything that has been learned about the Knicks through this first month of the season, it’s that the offense is, to be polite, not elite. There are huge inconsistencies at almost every position. The Knicks are last in the NBA in pace and 26th in offensive rating.
Randle has been the most consistent weapon, but outside of him, there are options that are just as likely to resemble a few guys playing pickup after work as they are an elite NBA squad.
Barrett has gone through stretches of 0-for-21 and 1-for-16 from three-point range and still is their second-best option.
So the Knicks rely on defense, which ranks first in the NBA in points allowed per game and has them third in defensive rating. But really, what they are relying on is Thibodeau — the biggest difference between the lost season of 2019-20 and this one carrying some promise that things have changed.
"We’ll get prepared for it tomorrow," Randle said. "I know Coach will come up with a great game plan for us to give us a great chance to win. As long as we execute it, we’ll give ourselves a shot at it and we’ll have a chance to win, for sure."
When the Knicks have been successful this season, they have been molded in the image of Thibodeau, who has had the sort of success as a coach that has eluded this franchise.
Former Knicks coach David Fizdale, who was let go after 22 games last season with a 4-18 record, was asked about this team in an appearance on ESPN’s The Jump.
"They are exactly Tom Thibodeau," he said. "They are competing their tails off. You know I love those kids. So for them to know what it feels like to win in this league is great for them. And [Thibodeau] is doing a hell of a job."
Like most teams, the Knicks have been banged up this season, but the last two players working back from injury — Frank Ntilikina and Austin Rivers — are close to returning. Ntilikina, nursing a sprained right knee that already has cost him 12 games, has been upgraded to questionable for Sunday’s game in Portland. Reggie Bullock is doubtful with a sore neck.