It’s not so much the losses that have come down to a far more regular clip lately than any other time this season. It’s the kind of loss. This is how these losses happened. If the Knicks blew their doors off and chased the gym night after night, it would be almost easier to explain.
Almost everyone believed they’d play the string by now, and counted the days to draft, to free Action and until the roster is recalibrated. Instead, they entered TD Garden Wednesday night, linked to the Celtics, who played in the Eastern Conference finals just a year ago. That speaks as much for the Boston fights as it does for the Knicks’ surprises, but the scoring is the ultimate fortune teller.
This time the scoreboard above them told the story of Celtics 101, Knicks 99, another loss to a growing bunch was added by them. In the last 23 days alone, the Knicks have lost 3 points and 1 point against the 76ers; to the nets at 5 and at 2, to the Timberwolves at 1. Now the Celtics at 2. They are 2-8 in games that are decided by three or fewer points.
That is a sure sign of progress; It’s a safer sign of how far they still have to go.
« Every day we work to develop winning habits, » said Tom Thibodeau, perhaps half an hour after the Celtics nudged a game before his curtsy in the east and they dropped two games below .500 (25-27) for the first time since February 23rd.
« We’re trying to do the right things and understand what it takes to win, analyze, and learn, and you want to learn from every game. «
The coach would never admit this, even with a swig of truth serum, but playing the playoffs has always been a secondary concern this year. The main thing was to formulate a positive dynamic after almost two solid decades of train going in the other direction.
That happened. The Knicks play defense every night. They don’t get intimidated at night when they are superior from a talent standpoint – which was certainly the case on Wednesday despite the record and despite the absence of Boston’s Kemba Walker.
The hope was that Julius Randle’s talent under Thibodeau could be maximized; There is no debate about that. There was hope that RJ Barrett would improve in his 20 year season and that has become an even bigger reality and an even brighter surprise. Barrett actually comes into the conversation as the most improved player in the entire league, and that progress starts to show every night. « He came with the right attitude, » Thibodeau said, « and it begins paying off. «
All of that is true. Neither does it reduce the growing frustration when winning games against good teams go the other way. If you want, you can take comfort knowing that the Knicks are light years ahead of what even avid optimists believed would be in the second week of April. It doesn’t change the difficulty that a seven-point lead evaporates in the fourth quarter. It shouldn’t either.
And doesn’t change the fact that closing a deal during games like this is part of progress – late in the day, after credibility has been established and competitiveness has been demanded. These elements are there. The last part deals with a way to close. That trick is still ahead of us.
« We have to realize where we are every night, » said Thibodeau. « Someone plays for something, fights for something, the intensity is increased. We have to understand that we have to react to that. I’m sure we will. » Barrett said (29 points, 6 against 6 out of 3 ): « Everyone plays for something. We are too. We have to bring this intensity further. »
Thibodeau’s methods have left their mark – « It’s the NBA, » said Barrett, his star student, « and we have another Friday « We have to concentrate and get this » – and now there is another obstacle to negotiating this issue of the curtsey. At some point, closing is no longer the goal. Closing is.
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