Everyone who lives and dies with the Knicks can recall Amar’e Stoudemire smiling his new $100 million smile and proclaiming, “The Knicks are back.” The Knicks were not back then, and 11 years later, they’re not back now.
But after so many fast breaks to heartbreak across the years, after Derek Fisher and Phil Jackson and the triangle offense, after David Fizdale, after the Kristaps Porzingis flameout, Tom Thibodeau has called timeout on misery, and on the eve of the All-Star break, Knicks fans this time are not relieved that the season is half over.
They can start to believe again. Their Knicks, 114-104 winners over the Pistons, are on the way back. Their Knicks are 19-18, the latest they have been over .500 in eight years. Their Knicks are a team again.
“It just feels like something good is happening,” Julius Randle wrote in the Players’ Tribune.
Something good happens when a star coach like Thibodeau arrives and gets his star player to buy in and everyone else follows.
The multifaceted, indefatigable Randle (27 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists) is the first Knicks All-Star since Porzingis and Thibodeau’s prime locker-room lieutenant. “M-V-P,” the mini-Garden crowd chanted during and after the game.
Randle has grown to love New York and New York has grown to love him.
“He’s a great worker and sets a great example for the team,” Thibodeau said, “and the impact on winning, it’s been huge. It’s not his individual statistics, it’s what he’s doing for the team, and that becomes contagious.”
Something good happens when Barrett (21 points), a Rising Star in his sophomore year, is a threat from downtown when he isn’t slashing downhill to the hoop and has regained the swagger he displayed at Duke.
“His preparation is giving him a lot of confidence,” Thibodeau said.
Something good happens when Elfrid Payton (20 points), back from a balky hamstring that cost him four games, was the best point guard on the floor even if Frank Ntilikina drilled three 3s in the second quarter.
Thibodeau is the best thing that has happened. Best Knicks coach since Jeff Van Gundy. Tom Terrific.
“Culture is how you do everything. It’s not any one particular thing, it’s how you do everything,” Thibodeau said.
Thibodeau cannot turn the Knicks into heavyweight contenders overnight, but the signs of a burgeoning professionalism and a commitment to D-FENSE are unmistakable.
“It feels like we have a collective purpose,” Randle wrote. And a hunger. “We’re not satisfied at all,” Barrett said.
Thibodeau has convinced players who had been crying out for a leader and a teacher that you have to earn the right to win. He loves coaching these players. They love getting better together one day at a time.
“I think we’re all engaged,” Barrett said. “We all have our mindset on the same goal, and we’re all working towards that.” The Knicks are laughingstocks no more.