New Yorkers fell in love with last year’s Knicks for so many noble reasons. The fans, who suffered through two decades of largely dysfunctional, disconnected, and dispassionate basketball received a gift from the basketball gods – a team that mirrored the best of the city it represented.
Those Knicks were tough, aggressive and opportunistic. Just as the pandemic began to recede some, the Garden became the place to gather and celebrate an exercise of selfless achievement. The fans couldn’t even get angry against their team for losing in the first round of the playoffs because their team showed so much good faith to get there.
But today’s Knicks are nothing like yesterday’s Knicks. Fifteen games deep into the season, where Tom Thibodeau is trying to figure out how and why last year’s chemistry took a quick break out of town, one point needs to be made:
Maybe the 2021-22 Knicks just aren’t that good.
On Wednesday night, they lost a home game against the Orlando Magic for the second time this year. The Magic are the worst team in the Eastern Conference, now 4-11, meaning half of their wins this season came at Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks have already lost five times. This 104-98 defeat was the most unforgivable of all, and Thibodeau explained why.
“They played hard,” he said. “We didn’t.”
Of course, the only minimum required by a professional athlete is total effort. More than anything, Thibodeau’s teams over the years have been known for working their opponents, both in practice and on game nights. If that remains true in the practice gym, it certainly doesn’t happen when the lights are bright on Broadway.
The Knicks made 18 turnovers, and they weren’t strong enough on the boards, and they weren’t accurate enough on their 3-point attempts, missing 33 of 49. Julius Randle is clearly not the same player he was at all. last year’s glory, and Thibodeau’s starting unit is not getting any help from the scorers acquired over the summer, Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier.
Obi Toppin was electric and acrobatic in his 18 minutes of play time, inspiring the Garden crowd to repeatedly chant his name. So he was the only Knick who could be excused from a stern but truthful post-play critique by Thibodeau who didn’t even excuse himself.
“I have to do a better job of preparing them,” he said. “That’s on me. So I’ll take a good look at it. ”
As he should. The Knicks shouldn’t be 8-7. They shouldn’t step out left and right, like a high school jayvee team, and they shouldn’t throw lazy endgame passes into the hands of rookie Jalen Suggs, as did eminent veteran Derrick Rose, leading to a deadly Wendell Carter Jr. dunk.
The Knicks have now lost six of their past nine. If this is an extended hangover from last season’s love affair, it’s time for them to get out of it. That assumes they are capable of getting out of it.
On paper, the Knicks stand among the deepest teams in the league. On the floor, that depth doesn’t deliver the kind of consistent high-level play needed to nail a spot in the postseason, no matter a final series win or two.
The Knicks are not tied, and are not defending as Thibodeau’s teams are supposed to have defended. “My job is to have them ready,” Thibs said. But again, the Knicks were not ready to defeat an inferior opponent on their home floor.
“That falls on me,” Thibodeau said.
That was not the story of the Knicks. Thibodeau’s Year 2 was supposed to be the next step in the slow but sure progression to championship contention. The Knicks made the playoffs in their first season in their dream job, and although the East muscled up, a trip to the conference semis this time seemed an ultra-realistic scenario.
But so far it looks like the conference has intensified and the Knicks have weakened. When the home team needed stops Wednesday night, it could certainly use Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton on the floor. Their offensive-prone substitutes, Fournier and Walker, combined for 10 points on a 4-for-13 shooting. Not that they are the Knicks’ only problems.
“There’s a lot to fix,” Randle said. “I’m not doing well for us now.”
No, it certainly isn’t.
“Even when we have guidance,” Randle said, “I just feel like teams are too comfortable for us. Defensive end, I think they’re just looking at us and they get a pace.”
What happened to the days when teams looked down the floor at Thibodeau defense and trembled? Maybe no one is afraid of the Knicks anymore because they don’t play with enough faith and purpose.
Maybe no one is afraid of the Knicks anymore because they just aren’t that good.