Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 13, 2021

Flying Pigs Spotted Over Madison Square Garden

Wednesday night in Cleveland, the Boston Celtics dropped their fourth straight game, falling 102-94 to the Cavaliers.  For Boston fans it was the latest disappointment in a season that began with hopes for a deep run into the postseason, expectations fueled by the team having advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals during last year’s campaign.  But a season that was interrupted by a prolonged pandemic shutdown before finally being completed in a Disney World bubble may not have been an accurate gauge of future efforts.  While Boston, badly banged up and now just a .500 club at 35-35, is faring the worst of the four semifinalists from last summer, the Celtics may well be joined by the defending champion Lakers in the play-in portion of this year’s postseason tournament, and both the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets have struggled to claim home court advantage for even one round of the playoffs.

But if the final score from Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse was a source of pain in New England, it brought unexpected pleasure to the long-suffering followers of the New York Knicks, for Boston’s loss meant the Celtics can finish with at most 37 wins, ensuring the Knickerbockers, currently 38-31, will end the regular season in no worse than 6th place in the Eastern Conference, thus avoiding a trip to the play-in round.  For the first time since 2013, there will be NBA postseason basketball at Madison Square Garden.

If this season’s struggles of the Celtics and Lakers, or the complete collapses of the Raptors and Rockets, count as surprises to varying degrees, New York’s rise to respectability is an utter shock.  Last year’s team was 21-45 when the season was suspended in March, and the Knicks were one of the eight squads officially accorded league doormat status by not being invited to the resumption of play in the Florida bubble.  Yet as bad as that effort was, New York’s 2019-20 winning percentage of .318 was an improvement over the previous season, when the Knicks won just 17 times in a full, 82-game schedule.  That matched a low-water mark from four years earlier.  In fact, only once during the seven straight years that the Knicks missed the playoffs did the team manage to win even forty percent of its games. 

All that losing produced plenty of turmoil and frequent attempts to remake the team, be it through the roster, the front office, or the occupant of the head coach’s seat on the bench.  After starting last season 4-18, the worst break out of the gate in franchise history, the coaching tenure of the hapless David Tisdale came to an end.  Then, just before the season shut down, longtime player agent Leon Rose was named team president.  While highly regarded as the representative of many top players, Rose came to the job with no front office experience.  That glaring gap on his resume, coupled with the media-fueled expectation that owner James Dolan was aiming to hire a proven front office talent – speculation had focused on the Raptors’ Masai Ujiri – meant that Rose was greeted with something short of wild acclaim.  And while it won him points for honesty, Rose’s first public statement was through an open letter to Knicks fans in which he said, “nothing about this is easy or quick so I ask for your continued patience,” seemingly signaling that a long rebuilding process lay ahead.

But the extended layoff occasioned by the pandemic shutdown and New York’s absence from the restarted season last summer gave Rose the luxury of time and the ability to shape the franchise while most of the focus of sportswriters and fans was elsewhere.  He hired Tom Thibodeau as head coach, who brought a reputation as a defensive wizard and enormous respect by his players from his time in Chicago and Minnesota.  He traded for veteran guard Derrick Rose and engineered a draft-day deal that brought Immanuel Quickley, the SEC Player of the Year at the University of Kentucky, to New York.  All moves widely thought to be positive, but nothing with the flash or expected instant impact of the crosstown rival Nets acquiring James Harden or the Washington Wizards dealing for Russell Westbrook. 

Expectations for this season remained modest, which has allowed the Knicks, while maintaining the discipline one expects of a Thibodeau-coached team, to play easy and loose.  The drama fans have come to expect at Madison Square Garden, from the court to the locker room to the executive offices, has been utterly lacking this year.  Perhaps that’s why Dolan’s other team, the NHL’s New York Rangers, are in such complete disarray.

Still, the Knickerbockers being seven games over .500, with a spot in the playoffs assured and a chance at the #4 seed and home court for at least one series still extant, required a fair measure of luck.  As Rose’s opening missive to fans made plain, even he didn’t expect this quick of a turnaround.  Julius Randle is having a career year, and in his second season RJ Barrett has made major strides from his rookie campaign.  Of course, a fair measure of luck, or whatever one chooses to call it, is why they actually play the games rather than just awarding the Larry O’Brien Trophy based on the preseason consensus of a panel of pundits.

The Knicks still have business to attend to, with playoff seeding and the identity of the team’s first-round opponent to be determined by the results of the final three regular season games.  And despite posting a 13-4 record down the stretch, no one should expect that when the calendar turns to the latter days of June, and eventually to July, when the NBA season is reduced to its penultimate four and then just two contestants, the lights will still be on at Madison Square Garden.  But after all they have been through over so many long seasons, who can blame fans of the Knickerbockers if just for a moment, as they savor the unexpected return of playoff basketball, they allow themselves to dream?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: