The Knicks Have Something

The Knicks have become a buzzsaw. They appeared earlier this season to have bumped their heads into a low ceiling, settling into the Eastern Conference’s lower middle class as a tough but underpowered also-ran whose team identity had more to do with the handedness of its several burrowing playmakers than with any particular strength. That wasn’t good enough, so they traded away R.J. Barrett and Immanuel Quickley on Dec. 30 and brought back Toronto’s OG Anunoby, and now the Knicks are hell’s own basketball team. They’re 11-2 with Anunoby in the lineup; their defense, since the trade, has jumped from 20th by points allowed per 100 possessions all the way up to first, and is nearly three points clear of the field. They’ve outscored their last 13 opponents by a breathtaking 194 points, half again better than the NBA’s only other team to have matched their record over that span.

Thursday night they beat the absolute hell out of the Denver Nuggets, 122–84, to notch their fifth consecutive victory and hand the Nuggets by far their worst loss of the season. Anunoby led the dominance at both ends, with 26 points and six steals in just 29 minutes. The Nuggets are tired and crotchety at the end of a 10-day road trip through the Eastern Conference, griping about a quick turnaround for a matinee Saturday tilt against Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers, but still: If the Knicks needed a statement win to prove this recent run is more than a byproduct of favorable scheduling, this clears the bar and then some. Even the parts of this game that were competitive weren’t very competitive; the Knicks, down not one but two excellent centers, didn’t even get cute and go small. They simply swallowed up Nikola Jokic’s teammates and beat the defending champions into submission while defending one of the greatest centers of all time with a combination of Jericho Sims and Precious Achiuwa.

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The new Knicks have a way of making it seem like maybe the smart thing to do would be to fold it up and pack it away and start over again tomorrow. It’s not just that they are hellacious defensively, all huge hulking shoulders and a fiendish delight in physical punishment. The Knicks are a middle-of-the-pack offensive team, but, crucially, there is no searching to their style, no uncertainty about method of attack or how to resolve a given predicament. The Anunoby trade helped to simplify New York’s ball-handling hierarchy; they shipped out two rotation players who need time on the ball in order to thrive and brought back one who does not. Barrett and Quickley were each using up better than a fifth of Knicks possessions when on the court; Anunoby, in his 13 games with New York, is using fewer than a sixth, and with pristine efficiency. The extra duties have gone to Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson. Randle is fine and better than most in the role of Guy Who Can For Sure Use Up A Possession; Brunson, on the other hand, is becoming a God.

Brunson is an unstoppable pest with the ball in his hands, too quick for certain matchups, too strong for others, and too crafty to be genuinely bothered by even the most disciplined individual defenders. When he can’t beat a guy to the cup he can almost always instead use a screen to get a little crease and gain a little leverage, and then glue the poor guy to his buttcheeks while he skitters around in traffic, surveying options and waiting for help defenders to commit one way or another. He’s also become one of the NBA’s real masters of the dark arts, such that when the situation calls for it he can usually force his way to the line. To his credit, Brunson does this by seeking rather than embellishing contact, but that will not do much to preserve the sanity of opposing fans; watching Brunson systematically grind away the resolve and self-belief of your team’s guards, one shoulder charge and three head-fakes at a time, is enough to make you lose your taste for professional basketball for whole consecutive days.

There are some caveats to all this sudden success. For one thing, depth is an issue. Shipping away a couple ball-handlers was good for lineup cohesion but it also means there are times when the Knicks badly need someone who is not Brunson who can engineer some efficient offense. Brunson missed a pair of games mid-month with a calf injury and in the first of them, a four-point home loss to the Orlando Magic, New York’s offense was a stagnant mess. In a recent 10-point win over the ghastly Washington Wizards, New York’s bench scored a grand total of seven points, dished two total assists, and missed all nine of its three-point attempts, leaving the starters to work late to close out what should’ve been a cakewalk victory over a tanking opponent.

And then there is the matter of workload. Tom Thibodeau, I’m afraid, may be returning to his bullshit: Since the trade, three Knicks starters (Anunoby, Randle, and Brunson) are in the NBA’s top 20 in minutes per game, even factoring in three blowout victories that allowed Thibodeau to extend some garbage-time minutes to his reserves. It’s when the games are close that Thibodeau’s habit of leaning excessively on his best players takes over: In a recent four-day span, for instance, Anunoby played at least 42 minutes in three consecutive games. Brunson’s minutes have been more carefully managed this season, but he topped 40 in that Wizards game. Thibodeau is a very successful coach and his teams do smart things but it was possible to miss during the run in Chicago that his real coaching innovation wasn’t loaded strong-side defense so much as it was that he almost never used his bench, a strategy that caused his best players to age like unrefrigerated fish. If preserving Brunson, Randle, and Anunoby for the playoffs is a priority, the Knicks might not be done wheeling and dealing.

But while they are healthy, man, this really works. And it’s a cool identity that suits the Knicks much better than the vastly more glamorous visions the team’s stewards have pursued over the years. There are no sexy stars here. The team’s three best players are all built like steroidal hedgehogs, and their work is expressly hard-hat-ish, thudding and sweaty and relentless. They’ll pulverize you at one end, and then resume pulverizing you at the other. The sport in the 21st century can’t really permit a full return to what a real hoops freak might consider True Knicks Basketball, but this team found its way to a pretty decent approximation, suited to the modern game. The trade clarified many things for the Knicks, such that they now have a real identity: They are the team you least want to be playing in the fifth game of a 10-day road trip, a gristly pirate crew that will spend 48 minutes punching your tender areas over and over again, until you give up.

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