Two years ago, the Knicks finished the pandemic shortened season with a 21-45 record. Last season, the hiring of a defensive minded head coach in Tom Thibodeau, combined with the emergence of Julius Randle as a top player and the continuing development of R.J. Barrett, the Knicks finished a surprising fourth in the Eastern Conference with 41 wins and their first post season berth in eight years.
The Knicks’ cinderella season turned into a pumpkin as the Atlanta Hawks exposed their flaws in a first round, five game playoff loss. Despite the mid season addition of Derrick Rose, the lack of a legitimate point guard caught up to Randle and the Knicks.
Randle, who was named to the All-NBA second team, was a primary ball handler last season. The Hawks knew that and focused their defense on the forward while daring the other Knicks to step up and beat them. That didn’t happen and the Knicks were not able to overcome the Hawks’ strategy, so they went out in five.
That development in the post season was why Bronx born Kemba Walker was brought on board. When Randle would dominate the ball was when he would get into problems. Walker will help alleviate that and will set Randle up for good shots.
The Knicks are looking for bigger and better things in the 2021-2022 season as they began their pre season schedule Tuesday night with a 125-104 win over the Indiana Pacers.
It’s only pre-season, but you can already see some positive differences in this year’s Knicks team.
Thibodeau was somewhat satisfied with what he got out of the first pre-season game.
“Coming here, first game of the year at home, establishing where we are. The big thing is to compete,” Thibodeau said after the game. “Like in any game, you want to understand why you either win or lose. There’s a long way to go, so it’s a good first step, but we understand what this is. This is the pre-season but every time they throw it up, it’s important to compete and establish how we’re gonna compete.”
Of course, no good coach will be totally satisfied. “I didn’t like our defense at the end of the third. We have to strive to be a 48-minute team and we’re nowhere near that,” said the Knicks coach.
Walker made his presence felt in his first game as a member of his hometown team. Walker played 21 minutes and scored 12 points on 5 of 10 shooting with four assists. Walker started in the back court with newly signed shooting guard/swingman Evan Fournier. Randle, Barrett and Taj Gibson started up front. “[Walker] Kemba and [Fournier] Evan were really, really good. [Randle] Julius was Julius. [Barrett] R.J. got going, our starters really played well, [Gibson] Taj gave us really good minutes and then our bench guys did a really good job,” Thibodeau said.
The 31-year old Walker has dealt with a left knee injury that needed a stem cell injection before last season. According to some unnamed sports orthopedic surgeons, Walker’s knee suffers from arthritis that could be a problem but he ran the floor well last night and the Knicks have to keep their fingers crossed that his issue does not become a chronic problem.
Fournier totaled 12 points on 3 of 8 from the floor, 1 of 4 from beyond the arc. Randle was 7 of 14 (2 of 5 from three) from the field and scored 20 points with 8 rebounds. Barrett shot 50% from the floor and from three and totaled 17 points.
There is a belief that Barrett will never become an elite player. I believe he can become an elite player and so does his coach. Thibodeau said, “His commitment is special, great kid, hard worker, disciplined and he’ll keep getting better. He’s only 21 but he’s putting a lot of work into his game.”
Obi Toppin looked like a much improved player during his 14-plus minutes of playing time, as he canned a couple of nice shots from the perimeter. Immanuel Quickley did not shoot well (4 for 10, 0 for 4 from three) but he dished out 7 dimes and had 6 rebounds.
Reggie Bullock left to sign with Dallas but Alec Burks is back. Thibodeau went with a small, quick lineup that had Burks playing with Walker and Rose. “They play off each other real well. They’re very effective at reading the defenses, so I think that puts a lot of pressure on the defense. You can get an advantage in terms of a mismatch,” the second year Knicks coach said.
Despite that fourth place finish in the East and a team that led the NBA in opponents field goal and 3-point percentage, along with the best in holding down opponents scoring average, the Knicks are not getting any respect from their peers. According to a survey of NBA GM’s in NBA.com, the Knicks were pegged to finish no better than 8th in the Eastern Conference.
That snub could serve as a motivating factor for a team that will not be taken lightly anymore.
The Knicks enter the 2021-2022 season with renewed optimism and expectations, but there’s always an adjustment to be made when the opposing teams take you a little more seriously.