The Knicks are returning home to Madison Square Garden carrying a seven-game win streak — the longest in the NBA.
Just a month ago, Tom Thibodeau’s seat was getting uncomfortably warm as his team suffered an embarrassing home loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder — allowing 145 points — and was about to endure what looked like a daunting five-game West Coast trip (which they finished 3-2).
Now, they’re the hottest team in the NBA and have a good shot to extend the win streak to eight games against the Golden State Warriors, who are without superstar Stephen Curry due to a left shoulder injury.
So what’s working?
The same coach who may have been on the brink of termination made some much needed adjustments to a Knicks team that is now locked in defensively and gets efficient production from different players. Some demotions and a switch to nine-man rotation has the Knicks playing their best basketball of the season and slotted into the sixth seed of the Eastern Conference — just 1.5 GB from the fourth seed.
DEFENSE WINS GAMES
The Knicks are giving opponents a much more difficult time on the defensive end and the change gives the team a form of identity that was previously lacking. In the last seven games, Thibodeau’s team ranks first in defensive rating (99.0) and opponents points per game (98.3). That’s a marginal difference from the first 23 games of the season when the Knicks ranked 26th in defensive rating (114.2) and 25th in opponents point per game (116.4).
Added playing time for Quentin Grimes and Deuce McBride positively affected the Knicks’ defense and could be Thibodeau’s most significant adjustment. Their insertion into the rotation means Derrick Rose and Evan Fournier are glued to the bench until further notice, but the new defensive duo adds an element that the Knicks previously didn’t have. The new duo provides resistance at the point of attack that is desperately needed in a league dominated by elite points guards every night.
TRIO PLAYING WELL
The front office received flack for constructing a Big 3 that many believe is overpaid and not talented enough compared to other star-studded trios in the league. A trio of Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett may not be as attractive as the stars the Nets and Bucks possess, but they sure deserve credit for their recent play.
During the win streak, Randle is averaging 26.7 points, 11.4 rebounds — numbers that are better than his 2020-2021 All-NBA second team season. Barrett is nicely bouncing back from poor play during the streak, contributing 22.3 points and 6.4 rebounds in the last seven games. The former No. 3 pick is beginning to perform after a slow start and could really turn into a force on the court if he improves defensively.
Brunson is continuing to look like the best free agent signing in recent history for the Knicks. The win streak is alive due to his ability to keep scoring timely buckets for the Knicks down the stretch. He scored at least 22 points in four of the last seven games — including two 30 point performances against the Bulls and Pacers.
BRUNSON STAYING TOUGH AND GRITTY
The point guard showed grit in the overtime win against his hometown Bulls last week, logging 39 minutes a few days after being seen in a walking boot due to a contused foot. The Knicks feared Brunson would miss some time after Sacramento’s Davion Mitchell fell on his leg in the 112-99 victory over the Kings. Brunson looked like his normal self as he broke Alex Caruso’s ankles and sinked a clutch 3-pointer to ice the game.
Brunson is providing an element to the Knicks that’s been missing in recent memory: a reliable starting point guard playing at an All-Star level and can break down defenses at will. He’s averaging 20.3 points, 5.7 assists and 2.3 rebounds during the streak. Brunson is the go-to guy for the Knicks and the squad hopes to keep getting quality outings out of him going forward — similarly to his performance in the second matchup against the Bulls when he knocked down five of six 3-pointers in the first half.
“Just luck,” Brunson joked after the game.