Playoff Grind Suits These Knicks Well

nysportsday wire

The way the New York Knicks survived their first-round series with the Philadelphia 76ers was the embodiment of what the Knicks have been this season.

Ousting the seventh-seeded 76ers wasn’t easy at all for the second-seeded Knicks, who appear to not only prefer things that way, but who seem to flourish when having to overcome whatever is thrown at them.

Sure, any team would prefer to cruise through a playoff series in a sweep with four blowout wins. But that’s not these Knicks and it’s not what has endeared this season’s Knicks to its fanbase, nor is it what has conjured up memories of the 1990s ultra-hardworking, blue-collar Knicks, a team that despite failing to win an NBA championship, remains beloved by Knicks fans three decades later for the heart and unending fight New York’s team showed during that era.

The easiest win of the Knicks-Sixers series that completed on Thursday night went to Philadelphia, in a 125-114 home win, in Game 3.

Everything else was a battle that could have gone either way. One of those took a miracle comeback, an overtime victory for the 76ers on the Knicks’ home floor to extend the series for another game. The rest were New York wins that could have all been losses. Until they weren’t — because the Knicks always found a way, just like they often did throughout the regular season en route to their improbable securing of the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference despite their road to the playoffs being lined with one huge pothole after other to navigate around without the season spinning out of control when it otherwise, quite understandably, could have.

At 12-9, starting center Mitchell Robinson missed New York’s next 50 games with an ankle injury. The Knicks only went 5-6 in the first 11 of those contests, but at 17-15, they took off with a 15-2 stretch to get to 32-17, ending that period with a season-high nine-game winning streak. The last three of those victories came after star forward Julius Randle was lost to a shoulder injury for the remainder of the year, a season in which Randle was having his second-straight All-Star season, his third such campaign in four years as a Knick.

New York lost five of its next six games to touch off a 5-10 stretch as starting small forward O.G Anunoby, just 14 games into his Knicks career (after being acquired in a trade with Toronto) missed his next 18 games, a period that started the same time Randle was sidelined.

As Anunoby returned in a home win over Philadelphia on March 12, the Knicks won four straight games and seven of eight, but lost three consecutive contests and four of five to put them in jeopardy of slipping potentially to one of the lower playoff seeds in a tightly packed Eastern Conference with only five regular season games left.

No matter. New York pressed on again, winning all five of those games to unexpectedly rise up to the second seed for the playoffs, clinching that spot with, what else for this team? Of course, a hard-fought, one-point, overtime win in the regular season finale over Chicago, at home — notably at a time when the Milwaukee Bucks played as if they took the same night off in a regular season-ending 25-point loss in Orlando, which dropped the Bucks a game behind the Knicks and to the No. 3 seed.

Some questioned if New York should have done the same in its final regular season game, perceiving Philadelphia as a tougher opponent than the sixth-seeded Indiana Pacers.

But the Knicks’ hard work was rewarded as the Bucks’ different mentality and approach wasn’t. New York didn’t back down from the challenge and advanced against a Sixers team that entered the postseason after winning their final eight regular season games while the Bucks — albeit, shorthanded without their best player, Giannis Antentokounmpo, for the entire first-round series, and without their star guard Damian Lillard for Games 4 and 5 of the series, which included one loss in those two games — were upset by Indiana in six games.

Like they did in the regular season, the Knicks battled to the end in each playoff game with Philadelphia until they ultimately accomplished what they set out to do.

In Game 1, New York trailed by nine points after the first quarter at Madison Square Garden but responded to lead by a dozen at halftime. After the 76ers went back up by three going into the final period, the Knicks answered by outscoring Philadelphia by 10 in the fourth quarter for a seven-point win. New York’s star point guard Jalen Brunson, in his first All-Star season, was off that game (shooting just 8-for-26) but the Knicks’ bench stepped up. Miles “Deuce” McBride put New York ahead for good on a layup less than four minutes into the quarter. Starting shooting guard Josh Hart — only a 31 percent 3-point shooter during the regular season — was dared to take 3s by the 76ers. After missing five of his first six 3s on the night, Hart surprisingly made his last trio of 3-point attempts over the final 5:08 to prevent Philadelphia from stealing an early series lead. All that after the Knicks crashed the boards all game to the tune of advantages of plus-14 on the offensive glass and plus-18 in second chance points in a way that made the 1990s bruising Knicks front line proud.

Punch, counterpunch. Every time it was needed.

When Brunson’s shots struggled a bit more in Game 2 (as we went 8-for-29) and New York got off to another slow start (trailing by seven after the opening quarter), the Knicks again turned it around to lead by eight at home with under eight minutes left. But an 19-6 Sixers run had Philadelphia up by five with less than a half-minute left and the Knicks seemingly on the ropes. Improbably, New York scored the final eight points in the last 27.1 seconds to eek out a three-point win and a 2-0 lead in a series they could have trailed 2-0 heading to Philadelphia.

When a bad first quarter once again haunted the Knicks, putting them down by 10 in Game 4, New York closed the gap to just two by halftime and took a one-point lead entering the fourth quarter.

Brunson, who found his game again with an efficient 39-point, 13-assist effort in the Knicks’ Game 3 loss in Philadelphia, put on a masterclass performance with a franchise playoff record 47 points and 10 assists while scoring nearly half of his team’s points as he carried New York to the finish line in Game 4. But he didn’t do it alone. The Knicks clamped down defensively (1990s Knicks-style), holding the 76ers to just 16 fourth quarter points. After a Kelly Oubre Jr. dunk kept Philadelphia within a point with 5:04 left, the 76ers didn’t make another shot from the floor and managed only three free throws the rest of the way.

Philadelphia paid New York back in Game 5 for the way the Knicks stole Game 2 at the end when point guard Tyrese Maxey — as part of his brilliant 46-point game — stunned the Garden crowd with a personal 7-1 run over the final 25.1 seconds of regulation to force overtime when it appeared that New York was about to close the 76ers out in five games. With the help of a missed free throw by Hart with 15.1 seconds left in the fourth quarter and a key Brunson turnover late in overtime, the series was sent back to Philadelphia.

But the incredibly mentally tough Knicks never hung their collective heads after implausibly collapsing in Game 5. On the contrary, they immediately took it to the 76ers on Philadelphia’s home floor to start Game 6, jumping out to a 33-11 first-quarter lead.

However, that seemed to almost be an uncomfortable spot to be in for a Knicks that thrives on adversity.

Sure enough, New York was dominated, 60-28, after that point, to trail, 71-61, in the third quarter, and thoughts of a Game 7 back at the Garden were looming.

But not with these Knicks. No, they had the 76ers right where they wanted them. A 22-12 close to the period tied the game to start the fourth quarter.

McBride only made one shot and scored just three points, but after his Game 1 layup gave the Knicks the lead for good, his 3-pointer with 7:10 left in Game 6 put New York ahead by two. Although Philadelphia tied the game on its next trip, the 76ers never led from that point. Instead, the Knicks built an eight-point lead with under three minutes left.

Series over? Not yet. Again, too comfortable.

A 10-2 Philadelphia spurt tied the game with 34.1 seconds remaining.

But with his costly missed Game 5 free throw buried in the back of his mind, Hart once again rose to the occasion by draining another huge 3 with 20.1 seconds left to give the Knicks a three-point lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

It wasn’t until shooting guard Buddy Hield (who torched the Knicks off the bench to key the 76ers’ earlier 32-point turnaround) missed a 3-pointer with two seconds left that New York finally held on to advance to the second round.

Over 293 minutes, the Knicks outscored the 76ers by the slimmest of possible margins — 650-649 — winning their four games in the series by seven, three, five, and again, three points.

Along the way, Brunson not only broke Bernard King’s single-game team playoff record by one point, but did something that put him in company with the 1990s Knicks’ main playoff nemesis.

Overcoming his poor first two games of the series, Brunson finished the series by becoming the first NBA player to score at least 39 points in four straight playoff games since Michael Jordan did the same in the 1993 NBA finals.

Although Brunson leads the way, the Knicks are a collection of players who consistently approach nearly every game – even in the regular season, and especially in the postseason — as if it’s a Game 7, led by a head coach, in Tom Thibodeau, who demands nothing less.

For all of their fight, the 1990s Knicks never did capture the NBA championship they so desperately sought, although they came very close, and may have very well won the title had Hakeem Olajuwon not stepped out to block John Starks’ 3-point attempt from the left wing in Houston to end Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

Nevertheless, the mere mention of Starks’ name along with those other surnames — Ewing, Oakley, Mason, even Harper (for a shorter time) — remain cherished in Knicks fans’ memory because of what they nearly accomplished and because of the way they fought to the bitter end in doing so, year after year.

Those Knicks were the personification of grinding with grit, toughness, fight, determination, resilience, and perseverance — all of the same traits these current Knicks possess.

For fans who still love the 1990s Knicks, those names of the past are replaced today with names like Brunson, Hart, (Donte) DiVincenzo, (Isaiah) Hartenstein, Anunoby, Robinson, and McBride. Even potentially (Precious) Achiuwa should Thibodeau extend his rotation a little more this postseason.

For a new generation of Knicks fans, these present-day Knicks are what the fans experienced back in the 1990s for the first time.

It’s even fitting that two of the Knicks’ biggest hustlers — Hart and Hartenstein — both have what sounds like “heart” in their names.

The characteristics that have carried over from the 1990s Knicks to today’s Knicks are what the fans adore.

New Yorkers know better. It can’t be faked or invented overnight simply with the Knicks’ new City Edition jerseys they’re wearing this season. It’s nice that those jerseys incorporate some of the style of the 1990s and early 2000s Knick eras and that the “NEW YORK” wordmark is layered twice in such a way as a nod to the iconic New York City saying, “the city so nice, they named it twice.” But that only gets a team so far with its fans if the style of play between the lines doesn’t back up the gritty concept.

The New York Mets may learn that the hard way if they merely wear their new 2024 City Connect jerseys — replete with the letters “NYC” across the chest, a dark grey color representing New York City asphalt and purple accents (for the No. 7 subway line that goes to Citi Field) — but don’t overcome adversity on the field the way their New York basketball counterparts have on the court.

The 1990s aren’t the only era the current Knicks bring to mind. With the great on-and-off-court chemistry between Brunson, Hart, and DiVincenzo — who were national champions together at Villanova and who now have the very unlikely yet great fortune of trying to become champions together in the NBA — today’s Knicks seem as tight-knit (with the chemistry extending to the rest of the roster, well beyond the Villanova trio) as New York’s lone championship teams in 1969 and 1973. That’s something that star guard Walt “Clyde” Frazier, a key member of those title teams, has often alluded to throughout the season during his 27th consecutive year as a Knicks color TV analyst.

That along with the aforementioned qualities the Knicks have may not be enough to keep advancing in the playoffs, but those things will certainly continue to give New York a great chance to do so.

The next challenge is fitting, a renewing of the past rivalry with Indiana, one of the Knicks’ primary adversaries throughout the 1990s and beyond.

This will be the eighth playoff meeting between the Knicks and Pacers with Indiana holding a slight edge over the years. New York won series against Indiana in 1993, 1994, and 1999 while the Pacers ended the Knicks’ playoff dreams in 1995, 1998, 2000, and 2013.

The players and coaches are, of course, different on both sides now and there may be no headbutts (like the one Starks gave to Reggie Miller) and perhaps no drama quite like Miller flashing the “choke” sign to Spike Lee, or anyone scoring eight points in 8.9 seconds to steal a playoff win — although Maxey came close to that in Game 5 last series — and the same level of physicality of the 1990s and early 2000s is no longer allowed in today’s game.

But like their past battles with the Pacers and with the Sixers this year, it will likely be another grind. That’s just fine. Nothing suits these Knicks better.

About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons).Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship).He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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