The New York Knicks are officially hot for the New York Knicks. They’ve won six of the past eight, and eight of 12. New addition Josh Hart is 9-of-14 from deep in his first three games (all wins) with his old Villanova teammate Jalen Brunson, and Tom Thibodeau has enough talent that Derrick Rose is getting DNPs. They just beat the Atlanta Hawks by 20, and are trending up with eyes on the Brooklyn Nets’ five seed.
So, I guess the question then becomes what can we expect from the Knicks in the playoffs?
Does Jalen Brunson have another level?
Thibs has always been a magician with point guards, and Brunson has been a revelation in New York. We saw glimpses in the first round of the playoffs a year ago when Luka Dončić was forced to miss time with an injury, and his efficiency didn’t drop off with the increased role.
This is my biggest concern for the postseason. We saw what happened to Julius Randle when defenses gave him the star treatment, and there are more than a few Eastern Conference teams with dogs on the perimeter. Boston, Milwaukee, and Miami all have the resources to make Brunson’s life miserable.
At the All-Star break, the Knicks are sixth in the East — a half-game ahead of the Heat, two behind the Nets, and five behind the Cavaliers. Essentially, if they can stay in the five or six spot, Brunson should be able to eat against Cleveland or Philadelphia’s backcourts, and I trust him to do so. (This scenario assumes that Brooklyn falls off, which you’d think would happen, but Mikal Bridges might have something to say about it.)
Any other team though? I have no idea because, during this hot streak, the Knicks point guard has been playing damn near 40 minutes per game. There’s no doubt in my mind that Thibs will rev Brunson as far past the red line as possible. My thought is it’ll be difficult to maintain the same level of effectiveness across 40-plus playoff minutes with the attention befitting a No. 1 option.
Can you trust Julius Randle?
When you watch Randle this year, what stands out is how many threes he’s taking. At eight per game, he’s attempting two-and-a-half above his previous career high, but only at a .338 clip, which is a couple of percentage points below the league average.
Considering he’s hitting 55 percent from two, the emphasis will be to force him to chuck threes, and he’s going to have to buck the urge to settle.
Randle bounced back from last season’s unmitigated disaster, and his points and rebounds are actually slightly up over two years ago when he was an All-Star, and the Knicks got dismissed from the playoffs by Ice Trae Young. His performance in that series and that series loss, in general, haven’t aged well, and it cemented Randle in the “I need to see it first” group of players.
How will Josh Hart and R.J. Barrett coexist?
The sample size is small. It’s literally been just three games since Hart came over from Portland, but Barrett only played 24 minutes against Brooklyn on Monday night. That’s important because Barrett has four other appearances of 24 or fewer minutes all season, and one of those games was cut short due to injury.
It’s great right now because Hart is shooting 64 percent from three as a Knick. I don’t know what to make of it though because he basically refused to take those looks in Portland. Maybe he was intentionally tanking his trade value to be reunited with Brunson, but Hart seems too competitive for that to be the case.
Eventually, he will come back down to Earth. However, if he’s still able to space the floor as well as Barrett, we know who Thibodeau will put his trust in. While they play the same position, each should theoretically be able to guard twos and threes. If Barrett was one of the top minutes earners before Hart showed up, doesn’t that mean he’s one of the team’s top guys? And if your top players can fit on the court together, that should be the best path to maximizing the talent, right?
I’m not saying Thibs should commit 38 to 42 minutes to Randle, Brunson, Hart, and Barrett, but the coach has a history of trust issues that have frozen out potential contributors, (poor Obi Toppin) and Barrett is too good to get spot minutes.
So all of this is a long way of saying the Knicks can get out of the first round with the right matchup, and anything after that is free money.