The Knicks have already survived one slippery slope. They lost five in a row not long ago, their record turning upside-down, 5-3 to 5-8, and were looking a little frazzled and a lot overmatched almost every time they took the floor. And we’ve seen where that’s led them the past few years.
Then the Knicks went into Boston and stunned the Celtics.
Came home and held off the Magic on MLK Day.
Flew west to begin a four-game western swing and in the lid-lifter stomped the Warriors. And suddenly 5-8 was back to 8-8, the Knicks looked as they’d looked across the season’s first eight games, looked hungry and angry and eager to surprise just about everyone around the NBA, starting with the jaded skeptics who call New York home.
That was only six days ago.
Now, the Knicks come home again after getting drubbed by the Jazz, 108-94 (in a game they led by 15 late in the second quarter), after dropping three straight to the Kings (a game that felt gettable most of the way), Blazers (a game in which they no-showed the first half and still found themselves alive down the stretch) and Jazz (that early lead built mostly by an otherworldly 10-for-10, 25-point first-half explosion by Austin Rivers).
They come home three games under .500 again, with the eyes of a been-there, done-that fan base heartily hoping they aren’t about to see more of the same. In reality it is the inevitable rhythm of a season in which so little was expected, so little anticipated. The grind catches up to everyone, especially teams that play with a talent gap every night.
So now, second time in the space of a week and a half, we will learn a little something about the Knicks, who will get the Cavaliers and the Clippers at home, who will travel to Chicago for a two-game road swing with the Bulls, then come back to the Garden for a tricky back-to-back with the Blazers and the Heat between now and Super Bowl Sunday.
We learn something new about the Knicks, it seems, with every game, with every homestand, with every road trip, with every winning streak, with every losing skid. It is the learning curve of youth. And it will be on full display now. Such is Tom Thibodeau’s mission. Such is the team’s challenge.
“The games keep coming and the challenges keep coming,” Thibodeau said late Tuesday night, looking none too pleased about the way the Knicks fell off the grid these last three games out West.
“You have to be ready. Regardless of what your schedule is you have to find a way to win. Want to try to keep building the right habits. In the NBA, everyone has difficult stretches and it’s how you handle it. We’ve bounced back before. We have to bounce back again.”
The Jazz won for the ninth time in a row, having gotten red-hot after blowing a big lead to the Knicks at the Garden on Jan. 6. In many ways, they represent something of a blueprint for the Knicks, a team that has steadily grown into a Western Conference power by utilizing a basketball plan as old as the pick-and-roll: smart drafting, smart dealing, smart signings, smart coaching.
“They are well put-together,” Thibodeau said, the admiration in his voice clear.
Because the Knicks are a big-market team with the power of Madison Square Garden behind them, there will always be the looming hope that one impact acquisition can finally catapult them where they want to go. This despite years of evidence to the contrary.
So it’s probably not a bad idea for Leon Rose and the rest of the team’s brass to adopt a Plan B. And the Jazz’s plan is so successful that the Knicks have helped themselves to a couple of Utah’s architects in Walt Perrin, now Rose’s assistant, and Johnnie Bryant, now one of the Thibodeau’s lieutenants.
Utah coach Quin Snyder is of a similar single-minded makeup as Thibodeau, he mostly won big during his first stint as a head coach in college at Missouri and has steadily built a quiet power in Salt Lake City, going 206-98 since the start of the 2016-17 season.
“These guys take the business of winning very seriously,” Snyder said last week.
You could see Thibodeau coming up with something very similar when the time is right and the team is right. For now, they try to stay above water. For now, the steps are much more modest. The Jazz are at a point where they have a season to savor. The Knicks have a season to save.