Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
Moral victories are rare in the NBA. Even scarcer are the ones actually worth celebrating. Too often, looking beyond a loss is equated to ignoring the loss itself. Results drive discourse, and real, actual wins tend to be the only results people care to discuss.
It won’t count as a win in the standings. It may not even be an inflection point upon which they—or those who watch and cover them—frequently look back. But the way they lost was in fact a victory because it was almost a real, actual win in a game they really, actually had no business winning.
Brooklyn opened the second quarter with a 10-0 run and led by as many as 18 points in the third. Even without Kevin Durant, even amid relatively mortal shot-making from James Harden, the Nets are the type of team against which the slightest deficit feels insurmountable. Leading by so much, so late, should have been the end, particularly against a New York offense that lacks the collective firepower to climb out of deep holes.
Except that wasn’t the end.
The Knicks outscored the Nets 36-23 over the final 15ish minutes on the back of diabolical defensive energy and 12 fourth-quarter points from All-Star Julius Randle, who turned in yet another does-everything line with 33 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and three steals on 13-of-27 shooting, including a 3-of-6 clip from three.
Not even the final score adequately contextualizes just how close they came to etching out the upset. They scrapped and clawed their way within three points and had the ball inside six seconds to play with a chance to tie the game. One uninspiring inbounds play and very controversial traveling call later, they lost.
And yet, they also won.
It has been too easy, from afar, to write off the Knicks’ success this year as smoke and mirrors, if not artful deception. They’re in the race for a top-four Eastern Conference postseason berth, but that’s akin to saying they’re a member of the Eastern Conference at all.
Nearly every team around them is operating on perpetual tilt, a stone’s throw from home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and a whisper from bookmarking Tankathon on their laptops, tablets and cellphones. Just 6.5 games separate the 13th-place Washington Wizards from the fourth-place Miami Heat. Three games stand between the No. 9 Chicago Bulls and that fourth spot.
The Knicks themselves, at 20-20, are in seventh with plenty of wiggle room in either direction. They have been obvious targets for stark regression because they weren’t supposed to be relevant in the first place, not even within the forever-forgiving East.
On the surface, that bullseye is not without cause. They rank third in points allowed per 100 possessions outside garbage time, but they also rank 21st in the share of opponent shots that come at the rim and 27th in that same department from beyond the arc.
Randle is in the middle of a career year. Limited availability from other forwards like Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant will invite some to toss him an All-NBA vote. It will be hard, albeit not impossible, to fault their logic.
Randle is now one of seven players averaging more than 23 points and five assists while knocking down over 40 percent of his threes. His company: Stephen Curry, Paul George, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kyrie Irving, Nikola Jokic and Zach LaVine.
RJ Barrett’s sophomore improvement has, until recently, been covered like run-of-the-mill progression, if it’s acknowledged at all. It is more like a leap. He is averaging 17.6 points and 2.8 assists while downing 47.5 percent of his treys since Jan. 15, a span of 28 games following the early-season funk that saw him miss 21 consecutive threes.
His performance against the Nets was not quite groundbreaking (23 points on 6-of-14 shooting), but he converted all 10 of his free-throw attempts and made three big buckets in the fourth quarter. His defensive improvement has flown even further under the radar. The Knicks do not religiously saddle him with superstar assignments, but he is a much smarter help defender and better at leveraging his size and strength on the ball.
Despite plenty of silver linings from their two best players, along with tantalizing offensive performances from rookie Immanuel Quickley, the Knicks still rank 24th in points scored per 100 possessions. They don’t take enough shots from behind the rainbow (27th in three-point-attempt rate). They don’t finish especially well at the rim (28th). They both get to (19th) and shoot (18th) at an unspectacular clip from the foul line. Their loss to the Nets now drops them to 5-13 against teams above .500.
And then there’s the balance of their schedule. They had one of the five toughest remaining slates entering Monday night, according to PlayoffStatus.com. They are not assured of a playoff spot. They’re not even guaranteed a play-in bid.
Progress comes in many forms. The Knicks are making it.
There is a rhyme and reason to how they hustle on defense, and the season is much too old to treat their top-three placement entirely as lightning in a bottle. They have guys who can pressure the ball. They have discipline away from it. They are capable of adjusting on the fly.
They also have players who, while high-variance in some cases, understand how to function within their own roles. From Reggie Bullock’s three-point readiness to Barrett’s comfort toggling between on- and off-ball responsibilities, the Knicks have an identity, a pecking order and, above all, a palpable fight.
Frank Ntilikina went 0-of-5 from the floor and fouled out in 16 minutes yet still impacted Monday’s game with his defensive pressure. And the Knicks gave one of the NBA’s foremost championship contenders a fight despite a combined 25-of-60 clip from Barrett, Randle and Quickley. Head coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t stray from his affinity for hockey-ish substitutions, but he did tweak the makeup of the second unit that was obliterated by Brooklyn in the second quarter.
This game, in so many ways, was a good encapsulation of the Knicks’ entire season. They are a team of imperfect solutions—a collection of talent still desperate for a high-end infusion, particularly on offense, but not without the answers necessary to reasonably hang with whoever is in front of them.
What this season says about the bigger picture is uncertain. The Knicks are not here, at .500, thanks exclusively to their youth.
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
Obi Toppin is deployed in seesawing doses and hardly played against the Nets. Kevin Knox hardly plays anymore, period. Ntilikina’s role seems tightly tethered to the availability of Elfrid Payton and Derrick Rose.
Barrett, Quickley and the injured Mitchell Robison are clearly part of the long-term core. Bullock, Alec Burks, Taj Gibson and Nerlens Noel—four of their six most-used players against Brooklyn—are not.
Randle lies somewhere in between. At 26, with one year left on his contract, he could be a centerpiece for the future or merely a breakout detour. Every NBA team is subject to the constant winds of change, and the Knicks’ current nucleus is no exception.
But that, really, is a matter for the offseason, when wholesale reflection is easier to undertake. And this loss to the Nets isn’t about whether the Knicks are somehow doing themselves a disservice by not leaning primarily on the 25-and-under crowd.
It’s about what they are in their current form: much better than expected, verging on actually good, and not by accident.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering games on March 15. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.