It isn’t so much the losses, which have lately arrived at a far more regular clip than at any other point in this season. It’s the kind of losses. It’s the way those losses have been happening. If the Knicks had been getting their doors blown off, chased out of the gym night after night, it would almost be easier to explain.
Just about everyone had them pegged for 22 wins; they already have 25.
Just about everyone believed they’d be playing out the string by now, counting down the days to the draft, to free agency, to a roster recalibration; instead they walked into TD Garden Wednesday night tied with the Celtics, who only played in the Eastern Conference finals a year ago. That speaks as much to Boston’s struggles as the Knicks’ surprises, but standings are the ultimate truth-teller.
And so are final scores.
This time, the scoreboard overhead told the story of Celtics 101, Knicks 99, another close loss, added to a growing pile of them. In the last 23 days alone, the Knicks have lost to the 76ers by 3 points and by 1 point; to the Nets by 5 and by 2, to the Timberwolves by 1. Now the Celtics by 2. They are 2-8 in games decided by three points or fewer.
That is wonderful, and that is terrible.
Julius Randle carries the ball for the Knicks on Wednesday night.NBAE via Getty ImagesThat is a sure sign of progress; it is a surer sign of how far they still need to go.
“Every day we work on forming winning habits,” Tom Thibodeau said, maybe half an hour after the Celtics nudged a game ahead of his Knicks in the East, dropping them two games under .500 (25-27) for the first time since Feb. 23.
“We try to do the right things and understand what goes in to winning, analyze and learn, and you want to learn from each game.”
The coach would never, could never, admit this, not even with a Big Gulp of truth serum, but making the playoffs was always a secondary concern this year. The main thing was formulating positive momentum after nearly two solid decades of the train heading in the other direction.
That has happened. The Knicks play defense every night. They refuse to be intimidated on nights when they are outclassed from a talent standpoint — which despite the record and despite the absence of Boston’s Kemba Walker, was certainly the case Wednesday.
The hope was that Julius Randle’s talent could be maximized under Thibodeau; there is zero debate about that. There was hope that RJ Barrett, in his age-20 season, would improve, and that has become an even greater reality and an even brighter surprise. Barrett is actually playing himself into the conversation as the most improved player in the entire league, and that progress is starting to show itself nightly.
“He came into this with the right attitude,” Thibodeau said, “and it’s starting to pay off.”
All of that is true. It also doesn’t mitigate the mounting frustration when winnable games against good teams go the other way. You can take comfort, if you choose, from the knowledge that the Knicks are light years ahead of where even ardent optimists believed they’d be in the second week of April. It doesn’t alter the aggravation of seeing a seven-point fourth-quarter lead evaporate. Nor should it.
And doesn’t change the fact that closing the deal during games like this is a part of the progression — and a late one at that, after establishing credibility and demanding competitiveness. Those elements are there. The last part is figuring a way to close. That trick is still ahead.
“We have to realize where we are every night,” Thibodeau said. “Someone’s playing for something, fighting for something, the intensity is ratcheted up. We have to understand that we have to respond to it. I’m sure we will.”
Said Barrett (29 points, 6-for-6 from 3): “Everybody’s playing for something. We are too. We have to keep bringing that intensity.”
Thibodeau’s methods have left a mark — “It’s the NBA,” Barrett, his star pupil said, “and we have another one Friday, we have to focus up and go get that one” — and now there is one more obstacle for this edition of the Knicks to negotiate. At some point, close isn’t the goal anymore. Closing is.