They call New York the ‘Mecca of basketball’. Even Zion Williamson couldn’t help but wax lyrical about Madison Square Garden having played there for the very first time as a professional this week.
“I love playing here. I played here in college. This is my first time playing in the pros. I mean, this atmosphere – whether they’re cheering for you, whether they’re booing for you, it’s amazing,” Williamson said.
“I think this might be my favourite place to play. Outside of New Orleans. I can’t even lie to you.”
That Zion’s comments were delivered with a one hundred gigawatt grin told you everything. That every Knicks fan on the internet saw it as a sure-fire sign Zion would be joining them in the near future much less so.
There was, after all, no reason for Williamson to be so cheerful. His words came immediately following a gruelling overtime loss. The Pelicans led by six with just under two minutes remaining and three with fewer than eight seconds left. Typically those games hurt far too much to praise the opponent’s fans and arena.
But in those final eight seconds Derrick Rose drove to the basket and found Reggie Bullock in the corner. He didn’t need a second invitation to send the game into overtime.
Rose, who initially sparked the comeback with a clutch three-pointer, also blocked Bledsoe’s last-second shot to win the game for the Pelicans and then opened the extra period with a steal and layup to give the Knicks a lead that wouldn’t relinquish.
“I mean I haven’t had this feeling in a long time, let alone be on a winning streak,” the 2011 MVP said after the game. “So I’m grateful to be in this situation.”
To put it bluntly: there’s something different brewing in New York this season.
It starts with the vociferous Tom Thibodeau – affectionately known as ‘Thibs’. The man who coached Derrick Rose to that aforementioned MVP award and the Chicago Bulls to a league-leading 62 wins in the 2010/11 season, his rookie year as a head coach after a decade spent as assistant.
Despite the blistering start, which included Coach of the Year honours, Thibodeau’s reputation rounded out as a meticulous, hard-nosed, defensive mastermind who played his starters far too many minutes – to the point of exhaustion – during the regular season.
In that sense, not much has changed, although Bulls and Timberwolves fans may have been startled by the news that he wanted to stop his team from training following Wednesday night’s overtime win against the Atlanta Hawks.
Immanuel Quickley says Tom Thibodeau declared tomorrow a "blackout day" and might revoke the team's access to the practice facility so everyone is forced to rest.
A number of great players including the likes of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Yao Ming have benefitted from and attested to Thibs’ ability as a one-to-one coach. It’s no surprise to see that Julius Randle, once a misfit lefty power forward on the worst Lakers team in the franchise’s history, is now a fully-formed All-Star and completely dominant offensive player.
Randle’s averages have jumped from 20 points to 24, three assists to six and 10 rebounds to 11. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that he is now shooting 41 per cent from deep on over five attempts per game – a stark contrast to his 28 per cent mark on less than four attempts from last season.
There is simply no way on this earth he doesn’t take home the Most Improved Player award come the end of the season.
While never a natural defensive stopper (the term ‘liability’ was often bandied around during his stint with the Pelicans and first year in New York), Randle is now putting in the hard yards and committing to the dirty work on that end too, as is often the case under Thibs’ tutelage. What a difference a coach makes.
The Knicks allow the lowest points per game from opponents at 104.7, comfortably the best mark in the league. Considering that figure was 112.3 and 18th best last season, the improvement has been both sudden and remarkable. Perhaps even more so given that Thibs has entrusted the 20-year-old RJ Barrett with the second-most minutes on the team (behind Randle) and key defensive assignments on the perimeter alongside the latest King of New York.
As well as those two hounding ball-handlers outside, the likes of Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson have been defending the rim like their lives depend on it during the extended absence of Mitchell Robinson, who looked like a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate before injuries dismantled his season.
In what rapidly became a war of attrition against the Hawks, the Knicks proved themselves mentally tougher by scoring the first 10 points of overtime despite their battered and bruised bodies. In doing so they secured their eighth straight win (the franchise’s best streak since 2014) and fourth seed in the Eastern Conference ahead of their avian counterparts. For now at least.
Randle had 40 points, 13 of which came in the final six minutes of regulation and the five minute overtime period. That’s despite being doubled or occasionally triple-teamed; he still hit big shot after big shot.
Watch below as the Hawks start to pay more and more attention to Randle as he gets rolling and how none of it makes a difference. The Knicks number 30 gets it to go, inside or out.
Immanuel Quickley, the livewire guard with the deadliest (and prettiest) floater in the league, also hit back-to-back threes just as the Hawks looked to be pulling away in the fourth quarter. He opened overtime with a layup, before Randle and Bullock (shooting almost 41 per cent from deep this season himself) followed with three-pointers. A Noel dunk followed to give the Knicks a 10-point lead and put the game to bed.
Before this streak began, the Knicks suffered consecutive losses by two points to the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics. Results like that one after the other would have broken many New York teams of recent years. There’s no better way to respond than by reeling off eight straight, including three in overtime when every possession counts.
If nothing else, this is an intoxicating blend of youngsters and veterans willing to scrap and fight until the moment the clock runs down. They’re desperate to win and rightly so. Were the post-season to begin today, New York would have homecourt advantage in the first round – a monumental step forward for a franchise that has been without the play-offs since 2013.
For so long, the Mecca of basketball had everything other than a team worthy of playing there. Now, thanks to an idiosyncratic head coach back from the Minnesota wilderness and an unexpected star blossoming before our eyes, it finally does.
The city that never sleeps is dreaming again.
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