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#70 - Why This Knicks Team is Ready to Prove Themselves - Op-Ed

Playing in their first playoff series since 2021, the New York Knicks entered Game 6 with the opportunity to end the Cleveland Cavaliers’ season – the very team that outbid them for 3-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell. Much to Knicks fans’ chagrin, they have watched Mitchell – another star on the Almost Knicks List – set career highs in point per game and field goal percentage while leading Cleveland to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference – one seed above the Knicks.

Of course.

Few expected the Knicks to be in this position, especially when their regular season leading scorer and rebounder – Julius Randle – pulled another vanishing act, reminiscing two years ago when the Knicks got bullied by Trae Young’s Hawks. And yet, here we are. The Knicks emerged victorious in dominating fashion, emphatically defeating Cleveland five games, and finishing 7-2 across all their matchups this year. After starting 10-13 to the season, New York has punched their ticket to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. How? Well, this Knicks team is a different squad than in years past, and the Cavaliers saw it firsthand.

These aren’t the Baby Knicks anymore. After getting smoked two years ago in the first round by the Atlanta Hawks and missing the playoffs altogether the following year, the young stable of Knicks players have accrued plenty of experience and time in the spotlight. Against the Hawks, no one stepped up when Atlanta keyed in and limited Julius Randle - but now? RJ Barrett, after a dismal start to the series, is the shining example of having prior playoff experience. Instead of imploding when it seemed like he had every reason to, Barrett’s confidence, resiliency, and aggressiveness in attacking the basket led to tremendous performances in Games 3, 4, and 5 – including a stellar 26-point showing in Game 4, providing Jalen Brunson a necessary wingman. Barrett’s growth and production is vital after his first playoff stint resulted in a wildly inefficient 14.4 point per game. These were the biggest games of Barrett’s career to date, and he delivered.

Similarly, Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley were essentially non-factors in their first ever playoff series two years ago, and while neither found their offensive strides until Game 6 – especially shocking for the Knicks’ Sixth Man of the Year Candidate – both players consistently attacked the Cavaliers’ series with intensity and focus. Obi Toppin, while getting limited run in the first three games of the series, was a massive factor in the second half to help stave off the Cavs as they surged in the third quarter of Game 4 and similarly exploded with a 12-point third quarter in Game 5 after Julius Randle re-injured his ankle. Toppin’s athleticism, fast break ability, and intensity on defense offers a unique skillset on a team that ranked toward the bottom of the league in pace. Quickley is still searching for the offensive rhythm that made him so dynamic all season, but finally sparked with a 19-point performance. In the meantime the Knicks should be satisfied with his league-best defensive rating in the playoffs (80.8). Quickley made life difficult for the Cavaliers’ star scorers in Mitchell and Darius Garland (and will need to continue this prowess against the likes of Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry). The defensive intensity of this young Knicks trio is a pivotal reason why the Cavaliers’ offensive was limited to a dastardly 94.2 points per game thus far (compared to their regular season average of 112.3 points per game).

In addition to their homegrown core, the Knicks finally have role players who can hold their own and play with efficiency. Josh Hart has swiftly stolen the hearts of the New York faithful and everyone who has shown out to MSG with lockdown defensive, timely rebounding, and enough fire and leadership to ignite the whole team when necessary. Hart’s synergy with Jalen Brunson has proved valuable more than once, as the two seem to share a telepathic connection – always knowing where the other is on the court for a timely pass. Hart adds necessary size and strength to the Knicks’ backcourt, and his commitment to the boards led to several rebounds at the end of Game 4 to seal the victory. Likewise, Isaiah Hartenstein – after a rocky start to his Knicks tenure – has given New York something they’ve been desperate for: an efficient, reliable backup center. The Knicks’ interior defense is no longer gashed the moment defensive stud Mitchell Robinson takes a breather, and Hartenstein’s emphatic block of Isaac Okoro was pivotal in halting a monstrous Cavaliers run in the third quarter of Game 4.  

But, of course, the biggest reason this Knicks team is different and ready for the challenges ahead is because of their newest rising star in Jalen Brunson. It may not be fair to label Brunson a “rising” star due to the point guard’s remarkable season, but somehow the Knicks’ marquee free agent acquisition keeps reaching greater heights. And New York has needed every last ounce of Brunson’s magic. The most notable difference between this series versus the Cavaliers and the collapse two years ago against the Hawks is Jalen Brunson – a true star who has been able to step up and carry the team despite struggles around him. Randle has struggled mightily before a promising start to Game 5, which ultimately saw him depart with his availability in question for the next series. Randle’s averages this series were an underwhelming 14.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 3.0 assistscompared to his impressive regular season splits of 25.1 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 4.1 assists. Meanwhile, Brunson has been steady as can be – he’s been the skilled sailor the Knicks have needed to navigate them through the storm that is playoff basketball. Brunson has willingly taken over games when necessary and has been the deft ball handler the Knicks have lacked in past years when the opposing defensive intensity reaches a boiling point. He limits mistakes and, thus far, has risen to the occasion, knocking down clutch shots in the second half of games. Despite facing traps and double teams, it’s been business as usual for Brunson, who is averaging 24.0 points and 4.8 assists at a steady 53.2 TS%.

The Knicks have achieved something the organization hasn’t experienced in a decade – playoff basketball in May. While that may seem like a small feat, it’s taken years of thoughtful and strategic roster building and many, many games of growing pains to be prepared for this moment. If the Knicks want to survive against a red-hot Miami Heat squad, Julius Randle needs to find himself. Jimmy Butler is coming with the intent of taking a bite out of the Big Apple, and the Knicks will need to dig deeper. The task ahead is daunting, but these Knicks have matured. They’re different. It’s no longer Randle or nothing. Instead, New York has a stable of reliable, tenacious players who intend to keep wreaking havoc and reach new heights. Knicks fans should savor this moment; this isn’t the same team they’re used to.

 Contributor: Josh Laufer (@joshlaufer)

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