The Knicks were not expected to be competitive during the 2020-21 NBA season.
The team was mired in a rebuild and had hired Tom Thibodeau in the offseason to be its new coach. This was the veteran’s third stop on the head coaching circuit, and it was expected that he would need time to turn things around. After all, the Knicks posted a 21-45 record during the COVID-19-shortened 2019-20 season, the seventh-worst mark in the NBA.
They were expected to be one of the East’s worst teams again. The the Westgate Superbook listed their over/under season win total at 22.5, tied for lowest in the NBA with the likes of the Cavaliers and Thunder.
Instead, they became one of the league’s biggest overachievers. They finished the season 41-31 and clinched the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference by virtue of their 96-92 win over the Celtics on Sunday.
The main reason for this massive year-to-year turnaround was the team’s defense. The Knicks finished No. 1 in scoring defense at 104.7 points per game, and their 108.5 defensive rating ranked fourth-best entering Sunday’s games. This came a year after New York ranked from below-average to bottom-five in most major defensive categories.
Thibodeau has long emphasized defense, so it’s no surprise that the Knicks made massive strides in that area. Still, their improvement was especially impressive considering the team hadn’t made major changes to the roster. They added a handful of players — Derrick Rose, Nerlens Noel, Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley — who served as key role players but weren’t superstars.
Indeed, the transformation came mostly from within, and that included the ascension of All-Star Julius Randle. The big man carried the Knicks by averaging a career-high 24.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists while playing 37.6 minutes per game.
Now, Randle and the Knicks will look to keep their unexpected run going in a first-round matchup with the fifth-seeded Hawks beginning next weekend.
“It’ll be fun,” Randle said Sunday in a postgame interview. “They’re a really good team so we’re going to have to lock in, and it’s going to take all of us to beat them.
“We’re looking forward to it. We’re excited we get to start off on our home court. We’ll be ready for the challenge.”
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