Wednesday, September 22News That Matters

Why the Knicks Keep, Ahem, Winning

It was only an overtime victory over the New Orleans Pelicans, the kind of win even pessimistic Knicks fans would have thought possible going into the season.

But the win on Sunday was something more: It was the Knicks’ sixth straight; the team hadn’t even won five in a row since 2014.

Pessimistic Knicks fans? Who remembers them? New York fans are over the moon about their team and are eagerly looking forward to its first playoff appearance in eight long years.

While the streak has included two wins over the Pelicans and one over the Raptors, there were also wins over three legitimate playoff teams, the Grizzlies, the Mavericks and the (admittedly depleted) Lakers.

That puts the Knicks at 31-27, sitting in sixth in the N.B.A.’s Eastern Conference and, let’s just say it out loud, only a half-game out of fourth place and home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

The eminently respectable season is all the more surprising because the Knicks were expected to be one of the worst teams in the league. They were a league-worst 17-65 in 2018-19 and 21-45 in the shortened 2019-20 season.

Bookmakers this time set their over-under at 22.5 wins for the 72-game season. Over bettors cashed that ticket in March. If the Knicks go .500 the rest of the way, they will finish 38-34, a .528 winning percentage that would be the best since their last playoff appearance in 2013.

While the playoffs will be an uphill climb for the Pelicans, they can take heart from the performance of Zion Williamson, whose second season has brought 27 points a game and an All-Star selection. He had 34 against the Knicks on Sunday in his first game at Madison Square Garden as a pro.

With the Knicks trailing by 103-100 with 7.8 seconds to go, Derrick Rose drove to the basket, then passed to Reggie Bullock, who made a 3-pointer to tie the score. Pelicans Coach Stan Van Gundy, displeased afterward, confirmed that he had told his team to foul, but it did not manage to. The Knicks pulled away to win comfortably in overtime, 122-112.

As for the reasons for the Knicks’ resurgence, No. 1 has to be Julius Randle, who had 33 points on Sunday. He has career highs in points (23.7 per game), rebounds (10.5) and assists (6.1) and made his first All-Star Game. Nikola Jokic of the Nuggets is the only other player in the top 12 in total points, rebounds and assists.

The much-traveled Rose, acquired in February, has played well in his second stint with the Knicks, and RJ Barrett could be on his way to stardom, especially if he more consistently hits his 3s.

While the team’s offense has its strong points — a .380 3-point percentage ranks sixth in the league — the improvement can be credited in large part to defense.

The team ranks third in defensive rating, allowing just 108 points per 100 possessions, trailing only the heralded defenses of the Lakers and the 76ers. Last season, it was 23rd.

Although the scale of the transformation is surprising, many did expect a focus on defense this season after the team hired Coach Tom Thibodeau, a defensive specialist, last summer.

The 3-point defense has been especially notable. With the Knicks aggressively defending on the perimeter, the team is allowing opponents to shoot just .334 from 3, best in the league. Last season, with more time to shoot, Knicks opponents made 38 percent of their 3s, and the Knicks ranked an abysmal 28th in that category.

Nerlens Noel ranks second to only Rudy Gobert of the Jazz in Basketball Reference’s defensive rating, which measures things like blocks (Noel is in the top five), steals, defensive rebounds and forced turnovers. Randle is in the top 10 of defensive rating as well.

And the team is doing it all with a payroll under $100 million, the second lowest in the league. Even Knicks haters, who have been dormant for want of a target in recent years, are starting to emerge on social media to duel with exuberant Knicks fans.

After years of anger, despair and, even worse, apathy, New Yorkers, and the rest of the league, are starting to take notice of the action at the Garden again.