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Fresh Hell

The New York Knicks, Without Overreaction

The playoffs are not to be dreaded this year.

The Knicks are good and that’s OK. (Hell Gate)

Knicks fandom, for the past 25 years, has been one of extreme contrasts. The highs, rare as they are (Linsanity, the 54-win Melo Knicks), are so glorious, we can become exuberant, distracted, loud. The lows, which are often (Andrea Bargnani, Stephon Marbury), turn us into peculiar beings, squinting our eyes so that we can see the Knicks as somehow better than they are, even when they've descended into the pits of hell when it comes to starting lineups (see the years 2006 to 2010 and 2017 to 2020). There's simply been no stability, no ability to look at the present and see a team in the future that resembles a fully formed franchise, with players meant to complement one another and actually contend for a championship. 

But no more. 

This season, like many Knicks seasons, was a strange and dizzying one. Our season opener featured the once-promising unicorn, Kristaps Porzingis, now replete with facial hair and playing for the bombastic and world-killer Celtics, our hated rival. They beat us, badly. We puttered along through the rest of 2023, with some flashes of cohesion, but mostly just running back the same team that flamed out against the Heat last year in the playoffs. The first half of the season showed that to go further in the NBA playoffs this year, something drastic would need to happen. 

And then—it did. By trading RJ Barrett (great move!) and Immanuel Quickley (sad!) and in return netting OG Anunoby, the Knicks suddenly became unstoppable. The new year began and the Knicks became otherworldly, tenacious on defense, beating people up inside the paint, and then immaculate at shooting the three. This would take no squinting to see—the Knicks were a great team, and the kind of outsized exuberance we all collectively began expressing quickly became a quiet, cold, confident one. The Knicks were good. We didn't need to compensate for it by throwing Seventh Avenue parties for TikTok

And then, as it always does—calamity entered the picture. Our steadfast but psychically tormented power forward Julius Randle went down in garbage time against the Heat. Anunoby suddenly developed a mysterious elbow ailment, a classic Knicks injury in that it was both mystifying and never quite explained. Mitchell Robinson never recovered from his foot injury from earlier in the year. And suddenly, the Knicks were reeling. What had seemed so wonderfully promising, was now, if we looked askance, an OK playoff team. 

But then in March, something really fucking cool happened. Undersized, undervalued Jalen Brunson started playing like the greatest basketball player to don a Knicks uniform since…I don't know! I'm not even sure if Ewing could ever single-handedly win games like Brunson has! To watch Brunson shimmy into the paint and excavate space through frenetic footwork, surrounded by people with six inches on him, and then create a shot that looks so gloriously open that even a layman could sink it, became an incredible shared experience. Even Larry David had to get in on this. The wins didn't look pretty—Josh Hart had to fight for rebounds, loose balls, and through elbows each night to keep the ball in Brunson's hands. Donte DiVincenzo would glow glaringly hot from beyond the arc, and then experience Pluto-like cold streaks. 

And yet, despite the ugliness, the Knicks kept winning. Deuce McBride more than made up for the loss of Quickley (again, we miss you man). Isaiah Hartenstein became a starting center with fearsome inside skills. The Knicks stayed afloat, they kept pace in the East, and then the guys started coming back. First Robinson, still a step slow, but needed. Then Anunoby, the X factor, locking down opposing stars. And with Brunson now going supernova, the Knicks began looking like that invincible team of January again. 

Randle's now-permanent absence, it unfortunately needs to be said, is a positive. After two playoffs with Randle, it's clear his general headcase tendencies during the postseason cannot be shaken, and his best skill is just generally slowing down the offense so much that the other teams get a few less possessions a game—a net positive for the team during the regular season, but not one that will generally work for the Knicks in the playoffs, where they will need to play faster. It's possible this is the last we'll see of Randle in a Knicks uniform, and his contribution to helping rebuild the team has been tremendous. Salute!

What's beautiful about this iteration of the Knicks is that they never stopped fighting. The 'Nova boys clearly like each other, and Tom Thibodeau is a maniac of a coach. These Knicks are lovable, but that's never been a problem. Knicks fans fall in love easily. The key thing about these Knicks? They're legitimately good, no squinting necessary. There's no need to be afraid of anyone they're matched up against, even, yes, the Celtics (OK, maybe I'm being a bit Bing Bong about all of this). 

It's a weird feeling going into the playoffs, being not horrifically stressed. Is this what winning feels like?

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