The Knicks Are Decaying Rapidly

It’s a distant memory, now that the increasingly zombified New York Knicks have dropped two straight in their second-round series against the Indiana Pacers, but in January this team was structurally complete and ascendant.

OG Anunoby, newly arrived from the Toronto Raptors, slid into the starting lineup like a keystone, giving the Knicks the wing defense and play-finishing they lacked. Backup center Isaiah Hartenstein was making the case that he should have never been the backup. Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle were twin battering rams of a squelching, iso-heavy offense. The defense was stingy enough to make head coach Tom Thibodeau’s hands shake with excitement. Offensive rebounding was so robust that it became a viable strategy to just chuck the ball up in the vicinity of the hoop to get the possession started. At one point, the Knicks won eight in a row, and finished the month 14-2.

The team that was blasted out of contention within the first quarter of Game 4 on Sunday, and sits at two games apiece against Indiana, bears no resemblance to the team that surged in January—or even the one that secured the second seed at the end of the regular season. The Knicks are now down three of their starters. Julius Randle didn’t even make it to the end of January, after he dislocated his shoulder, tried to rehabilitate it, and was scheduled for season-ending surgery instead. Big man Mitchell Robinson enjoyed a triumphant late-season return after missing 50 games, helped the Knicks claw past Joel Embiid in the first round of the playoffs, and then suffered a stress fracture on his surgically repaired ankle. Bojan Bogdanovic had season-ending foot surgery after the series against the 76ers, too, robbing them of some valuable wing depth and scoring. And Anunoby has missed Games 3 and 4 with a hamstring injury after he came up limping after planting his foot for a layup late in Game 2 against the Pacers. On Sunday, Thibodeau said that Anunoby has been doing “pool work” and hasn’t started running yet.

Brunson, the most essential and resilient Knick, a lump of granite with intricate footwork, is finally starting to erode, too. Since Game 2 he has been playing through what the team is calling a “sore right foot,” and while the tenacity is admirable, the overall context is insurmountable. Josh Hart can soak up every minute of regulation and magnetically attract 17 rebounds, and Donte DiVincenzo can jack up some much-needed threes, but these efforts are not enough to bridge the gap between the current Knicks and their hypothetically complete form.

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As soon as I saw Anunoby limping, the possibility of a series win was in peril; I immediately wrote off a potential conference final victory. Some told me I was overreacting, but anyone familiar with this rotation knew that this team was about to fling some comically untalented lineups into second-round playoff games. As predicted, appearances from the likes of Jericho Sims and Alec Burks have not inspired great confidence. This Pacers team is flawed and fraudulent in its own right—Tyrese Haliburton in particular is a multi-level marketing scheme—but the Knicks don’t have enough unbroken players to expose this obvious truth to the world.

The Knicks cannot win this series without getting two relatively normal offensive performances from Brunson. Though he’s been one of the most productive players of the entire playoffs, the point guard looked far from that standard in Game 4, shooting 6-of-17 from the field and failing to wriggle free for his usual repertoire of floaters and leaners. For several months already, the Knicks offense has boiled down to “Jalen Brunson drive,” and now, he’s been visibly grimacing after every single one.

Thibodeau takes a lot of heat for grinding his players down with workload, and I’m generally quick to defend him. It’s too reductive to ascribe this series of injuries to the coach’s perversion. But when a dinged-up Brunson was asked to play 31 minutes in a game that the Knicks were already losing by more than 30 points before halftime, I was ready to storm the coach’s office. Health is the scarcest resource for this team, and that was reckless. From where they stand currently, the Knicks can go nowhere without a rested Brunson. He has a mere two days off before beginning a best-of-three series. He’ll get some help from the other survivors of this wrecked squad, but those 30 to 40 points won’t just score themselves.

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