When I was a teenager, I used to play on a local basketball team. It was a thing right out of the most cliched underdog sport movies: scrawny kids with glasses, uncoordinated tall guys, a fat kid who couldn’t move but shot fairly well and a couple legitimately good players (one of them, my partner in crime in the post, was so good that he got an invite to try out for Fortitudo Bologna – a Serie A team, but of course we’re talking about their young academy). Problem is, we were always – always – shorthanded. While that explains why a 5’9″ guy like me would routinely end up playing 35mpg at the PF/C spot, it also meant that our coach had to play ubershort rotations while sometimes having to give spot minutes to this – I kid you not – 4’7″ 15 year old whose torso looked definitely smaller than the ball. Usually, we were terrible, sometimes even losing 80-20 or 110-36 to very good teams.
But, one year, a new coach came in and we ended up missing the playoffs just by one win (it was an amazing experience nonetheless. We weren’t shooting for the playoffs. We were just elated to be able to win 7 games out of 16 that year). Were we different? Maybe a bit. The other good player, not the one who got the tryout, suddenly learned how to orchestrate offense with the help of some screens and since he was already good at passing the ball, that unlocked many more opportunities for a few guys. But other than that, the thing was that this coach had a clear plan, was able to communicate it coherently and rewarded guys for hard plays and not for improptu buckets out of their asses. Remember the 4’7″ kid? He was an offensive non-entity because he didn’t have the strenght to shoot from more than 15 feet and of course never got into the paint since he would have had a 30% chance of getting bounced all the way to France, but he was a defensive pest. He moved his limbs at double the speed of anyone else and while his body wasn’t able to endure paint battles he was enthustiastic as hell in annoying the fuck out of opposing playmakers. Think Patrick Beverley in the body of a younger, shorter Rick Moranis. Well, this kid knew that, if he had put in his effort, he would have been rewarded with playing time. And he did. And we all did (most of us did. A kid left the team after half a year of the new coach because he wasn’t getting his usual touches and the coach would reprimand him over and over since he never passed the ball to the “shooters”).
You already know why I’m telling you this. Watching the 2020/21 Knicks play, that experience can only come to mind. Last night we were able to field barely a 7+ guys rotation (the plus is Quickley, who played only 6 minutes) and instead of being swept away from the court by the Jazz we were good enough to hang tight and thanks to some late Rivers heroics we pulled away with the win. But at that point I didn’t really care about the result. Just seeing these supposedly outmatched guys stay in the game and mounting a real comeback, I mean, wow. Thibs is clearly working magic there. Except, it’s not magic. You remember the expression “Fizdale magic”? Yeah, that’s magic, because it isn’t fucking real. Thibs is just doing his job in the most solid way possible. I don’t know if it will last. I don’t know if we will look at this time of the year when we’ll be in March and marvel at how that 12-26 team could be the same that started 5-3. But at this point I never want to wager against a team coached by Thibs.
About the game: the story is easier than you think. Ugly Julius showed up in the first 18 minutes, Gobert got what he wanted and we couldn’t hit a shot from outside in the first half, but were still able to cut a one-time 18 point deficit into a merely 12 point one just by staying there with our heads. Then, in the third quarter good Julius came to the rescue and Payton wasn’t pretty much totally undeterred by Gobert. The defense picked up the intensity, Mitch swallowed Gobert alive, the Jazz apart from Jordan Clarkson forgot how to shoot, Bullock hit a couple threes, and at that point HERE COMES AUSTIN RIVERS: 14 straight points for the Dukie with hyper-volumetric balls and, even after a couple bone-headed mistakes in bringing the ball up court in the last 90 seconds, we took home the win. It looked easy in hindsight. But more than that: it looks sustainable (insert bewildered Pikachu meme).
– Sometimes it’s just great to watch once overhyped players find their role player niche in the League after failing at their first stops. I don’t know if we’re at that point with Austin Rivers (23 pts, 3 rebs, 2 ast, +2 +/-) but just the fact that when he signed here nobody wrenched their nose points to a reputation shift that came before this stint – of course that’s fair only if we consider the amount he signed here for, if the contract was a Mills/Perry special at 10M/yr it would have been an entirely different talking point.
Tonight he gets the game ball because he shot the lights out in the last quarter, playing with total gusto on both ends and exuding fiery leadership in a moment when the Knicks sorely needed it, but that’s not what we should come to expect from him, honestly. This guy is a career 42% from the field, 35% from three shooter, and usually these things don’t change that much. But he can handle the ball, he can defend, he’s already been through highs and lows. I never thought that there would have been a chance at “Austin Rivers, veteran guide”, but alas, here we are. It will be interesting to see what happens when Burks will be back.
– Oh hey. You remember that guy who looked a mess last year spinning around like a bad Kylie Minogue cover band? Meet the new Julius Randle (30 pts, 16 rebs, 7 ast, +25 +/-) who makes a stellar statistical night look like a meh outing because we know he can be better. How cool is it that we’re watching a guy who’s averaging 23/12/7 and we think simultaneously “yeah well that’s good” and “no reason to think he can’t do some of that for a whole year and anyway we won’t overreact since the contract situation is only favorable to us”? I’ll be frank: I still don’t like Julius’ brand of basketball, but this year is a purely aesthetic thing and not an efficiency issue. When he gets the ball/starts the dribble just outside the paint, he’s a real force to be reckoned with. In the third quarter he made Gobert look like the police at Capitol Hill (a few words on this at the end).
– I can’t praise enough Mitchell Robinson (9 pts, 13 rebs, 2 ast, +12 +/-) who went seemingly overnight or at worst overseason from “cool stats, not sure about the actual defense” to “slightly less cool stats, but humongous defensive impact”. Last night he had 3 steals and 3 blocks, but that’s really not the point, although they of course don’t hurt a bit. The best stat of the night: 41 minutes played. And he didn’t look gassed at all, instead giving Gobert a lot of fits on both end and, at least to me, winning the duel for the night. I totally loved the play where he just dove into the paint with the ball to be inbounded from the baseline and he wrecked the rim a few instants later. The defense was caught off guard for sure, but that’s how you assert your dominance, young space cadet.
– Ok I’m starting to worry a bit about RJ Barrett (9 pts, 5 reb, 1 ast, +10 +/-). It’s not about him being able to play in the NBA as a starter (he can) or him being able to develop (he did). It’s about the fact that it’s historically very unlikely that such a bad shooter can suddenly learn to shoot well, which brings us to the real point: why is he shooting from outside at all if he can’t hit? It’s ok trying a few to keep defenses on their toes, but honestly his outside shot is really, really cringe inducing. He can be productive even without one (even if he will have a much lower ceiling that way) but it’s on the coaching staff to understand what to do to put him in a better place offensively. I don’t care about counting stats this time. I care about not having to grimace seeing him hoist 18-foot jumpers knowing full well that his shot has the same chance to fall consistently as me getting featured on Spotify for a week. Don’t Westbrook it, man.
– Good game by Elfrid Payton, but there’s almost always something about him that makes him look like he’s missing a J to drop a straight. And oh! Hey! My writing is actually smarter than me, since I realized only now that that J is a jumper (no, seriously, I didn’t plan for this bad joke but I left it in anyway). Anyway, I’ll take 22/2/8 on 67% shooting and just one turnover anytime, but that doesn’t mean I have to like his game.
– Bullock hit a couple ultra-timely threes and was generally competent, but holy shit, 7 rebounds? If you caught me flat footed and asked me “how many boards got Bullock last night?” I would have answered 2 or 3 tops. This team is so good at rebounding the ball that it just numbs the actual rebounding instances out of your memory.
– Ok, Knox is our only able-bodied “big”, but the fact that Thibs is hellbent on playing him and not giving Theo Pinson or Iggy a single minute tells you something about the fact that our coach has some kind of faith in him. And sometimes that faith is rewarded, like in the block on Conley/rebound sequence with 34 seconds to go in the third. Fun fact: that block and that rebound were the only box score contributions apart from scoring from Knox in 16 minutes. He’s just not a stat-stuffer, is he? Anyway he was at least perfect from the field, 3 for 3 with a couple nasty dunks and a three.
– I have no qualms with Quickley playing this little. He’s a rookie, he came in at the wrong time, other players were fluffing the staff better. He was still able to play his dupe-a-fool and get-a-foul game and and gift Knox an alley-oop soft candy only to unwrap.
– Isn’t it amazing how confidence and discipline make you capable of hiking the hardest mountains? A few days after not being bothered by the then league-leading shotblocker, Myles Turner, our Knicks took the challenge and went right at Gobert (or better yet, exploited his absence and then pounced on him as he returned). Gobert got 5 blocks anyway, but he didn’t look impactful at all in the second half.
– The Knicks won again the rebounding battle 47 to 43, and that’s with only having Mitch, Randle and Knox (?) as their big men. Utah had Gobert, Favors, and a mish-mash of SF/PF in Bogdanovic, Niang, Ingles and O’Neale.
– Say what you want, but it this team learns to turn the ball over only 15/16 times per game, we could be trouble for anyone as soon as there will be more bodies in the rotation. TOs plagued us in the first games.
– Guys, I’ve seen it. Believe me. We run a Payton/Mitch PnR after a timeout. We can be heroes just for one day!
– Thibs is almost making Miller look bad, so he’s downright embarrassing Fizdale so much that his descendants will only be able to be addressed as Fizfail right to his third grand-grand-grand-son.
To end on a sour note: the Capitol Hill disorders were a fucking shame cast upon what once was the gold standard of Western democracy. I don’t know if I would have postponed the games citing something as “we’re mourning the death of decency” but I would have for sure said something public before the games. I like that some teams bent the knee here and there, but this was a unique chance to make their voice felt even more on every type of social disturbance. Maybe you’re of the idea that sports and politics shouldn’t mingle; I’m not. Apart from the inherent memeability of the shamanic Jamiroquai rip-off, yesterday they were airing a tragedy outside of Capitol Hill (and mind you: it WAS a tragedy. Four people died. And who knows how many would have died if the protestant’s skin was a few shades darker). I know often NBA players political stances are just a byproduct of owners’ hypocrisy, but even hypocritical condemnation is better than half-assed symbolism.
So, until next!