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The Knicks are heating up New York

Now that Thibs has decided to play the kids, the New York Knicks are looking like a formidable team in a loaded Eastern Conference

It all started earlier this month at Madison Square Garden against the Dallas Mavericks. The two underachieving teams were battling for the biggest bum award, with the Mavs owning a single-digit lead at the half. The Mavs went on a 41-15 run to finish the third quarter, effectively blowing out the Knicks on their home court. The Mavs hit 23 threes on the Knicks, exacerbating the team’s porous perimeter defense. Since Luka Dončić started in Dallas, the Mavs were among the few teams the Knicks could claim ownership over. But on this night, the Knicks couldn’t even claim to own their dignity. 

They went on an eight-game win streak immediately after, beating solid teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Sacramento Kings, and rival Atlanta Hawks. During this stretch, the Knicks only gave up more than 100 points once to the Bulls while keeping four of the teams under 100 points. What inspired this turnaround? Besides Jalen Brunson’s command of pace, head coach Tom Thibodeau made a major adjustment to the Knicks rotation. 

Thibs finally played the kids

After a season and a half of Knicks Twitter desperately clamoring to “play the kids,” Thibs finally obliged. He limited the rotation to nine players, benching for good Evan Fournier, Cam Reddish, and class favorite Derrick Rose, a clear sign he was putting winning over loyalty. The current nine-man rotation consists of Brunson, Quentin Grimes, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson, and bench players Miles McBride, Immanuel Quickley, Isaiah Hartenstein, and Obi Toppin. Once Toppin went down with an injury, second-year center Jericho Sims took his spot in the rotation. 

The updated rotation has prioritized youth and defense, keeping the opposing team’s best players better contained while better defending the perimeter than at the start of the season. As a result, they currently rank in the top ten in both offensive and defensive rating, a stark contrast to last season’s sluggish effort. 

McBride especially has been the biggest difference maker of any player who went from not playing to inside the rotation. He’s now averaging 18 minutes a game off the bench and pairing with Grimes and Quickley to form one of the most potent defensive trios in the NBA. McBride alone has an 87.7 defensive rating and averages a steal a game. His defensive rating is the best in the NBA for players averaging 10+ minutes per game. 

Brunson and Grimes have held down the backcourt

Handing the keys over to Brunson has solidified the team’s two-decade need for a point guard. He has been a bonafide clutch shot maker for the Knicks, as he is currently tied for fifth place in clutch points with 60. Most importantly, he has kept the team composed and bought into Thibodeau’s vision. The two have known each other since Brunson was a boy, and the relationship extends to Brunson acting as an avatar on the court, implementing Thibs’ game plan to perfection. 

The Knicks are looking good
Photo credit: Getty Images

Meanwhile, inserting Grimes as the permanent starter at the shooting guard spot has done wonders for the starting unit on both sides of the ball. Before the season started, there was much debate over who should start between Reddish and Grimes, but those conversations are over. He doesn’t need any plays called for him or the ball in his hands to make an impact, especially on defense. As a starter, he’s increased his three-point shooting to 38%, and his absence due to a foot injury was felt in the team’s loss to the Raptors. 

The Knicks go as Julius Randle goes

Nothing could have changed for the Knicks without their best player. After a terrible downturn during the 2021 – 2022 campaign, which saw him bickering with fans and giving half-assed effort on defense, Julius Randle has resumed the leadership and defensive commitment that earned him All-NBA, All-Star, and Most Improved Player honors just two seasons ago. 

Randle has turned a corner on both sides of the ball, and Brunson has been a massive part of that, taking the ball out of Randle’s hands and making him more of an intuitive scorer in the flow of the offense. This has led to a best-case scenario for the Knicks, vaulting them back into the playoff hunt and the top third of the Eastern Conference standings. If the Knicks plan to stay here, it will take the team continuing to buy into their defensive tactician’s demands. But with a steady head and hand in Brunson at the point and a nine-man rotation of above-average defenders, this team represents Thibs’ coaching philosophy more than any other Knicks team he’s presided over.