Over last the decade, six successive losses, not to mention 12 defeats in the last 18 games, would have been enough to send Knicks fans into fits of distress.
Usually losing runs, particularly mid-season ones, have been emblematic of the dysfunction at the core of the organisation. Not only that, they’ve usually triggered the panic moves that saddled us with, for example, the corpse of Steve Francis at huge financial costs.
This season, however, things are little bit different.
Six of these 12 defeats have come against the league’s best teams (the Lakers, Heat, Magic and Spurs). None of them have been blowouts. Only two, the home losses to Sacramento and Phoenix, count as unacceptable. Only against the Kings have they failed to put forth the effort that fans expect. In this five-week period, the toughest stretch the Knicks face all season, Mike D’Antoni’s men have beat San Antonio and Chicago at home and got the better of Portland on the road.
So what’s the lesson here? For me, it’s that the recent spurt of losses has basically served to calibrate what our expectations should be.
The temptation with a rebuilt team that starts to enjoy some success is to anoint them the rising stars of the league. After all, Boston went from the basement of the Atlantic Division to the title in one year, right? But the overhaul of the Knicks roster last summer wasn’t even close to the reconstruction that happened in Boston. The Celtics ended up with three superstars and a rising star in Rajan Rondo. The Knicks added one all star in Amare Stoudemire and an relatively unheralded point guard in Ryamond Felton who has turned out to be better than anyone could have hoped.
In terms of on-court artillery, the Knicks had enough to become a play-off team, not a title contender. They had teething problems to start, a win streak that garnered national attention soon after and now, as we pass the halfway mark of the season, a string of defeats.
Over 43 games, the ups and downs of back-to-backs, road trips, injuries and developing chemistry level out and show, record-wise, where the Knicks stand. They are – and indeed have been for some time – the sixth best team in the east. They will make the play-offs. Unless the roster undergoes a Melo-dramatic change, they’ll get bounced by a superior team in the first round.
Is that enough? For now, I say it is. And not just because of where this team has languished for such a long time.
Sure, a winning season and a play-off spot will be more than welcome after the interminable failures of the Dolan/Thomas years. But that’s not the main thing here. And that’s because there’s something else Knicks fans can take from the current losing run.
It’s not losing that’s always the problem, it’s how you lose. And while D’Antoni’s reliance on playing his starters up to 40 minutes a night has arguably left his key men gassed and pining for the all star break, at no point has this team looked disinterested or like they’ve surrendered as the losses have begun to pile up.
This week’s games have been a good illustration. Falling by 15 points to Houston to start a tough road trip wasn’t ideal but, two nights later, facing the league’s best team in San Antonio, the Knicks refused to fold, coming back into the game time and again before falling in the final minutes.
One night later, a solid Knicks road performance was rendered fruitless thanks to a Kevin Durant buzzer beater. Once again, the desire to fight and the refusal to mail it in were on show. Sure, Durant’s three denied them overtime. But he’s a top three player in this league. He’s supposed to win games like that. Whether he should have had the opportunity to put the game away is another question. New York’s failure to find buckets in the final minutes is what really cost them this game.
Like I said, it’s how you lose. There’s no quit in this team. And it’s been a long time since Knicks fans could say that.
The toughness of Stoudemire and Felton flows through this team. No longer are the Knicks collectively willing to accept losing. Getting beat should never be about lack of effort. But there are superior teams in this league. Over the last five weeks, the Knicks have had to learn to take their lumps.
When will the winning habit return? Well, having a home game against a Washington team with zero road wins all season should certainly help.
The Knicks current slump shouldn’t blind fans to the progress this team has made. No, they’re nowhere near the finished article. Yes, the defence isn’t anywhere near good enough. But the facts are these. The Knicks remain on pace for a 44-win season despite having been through their hardest stretch of games. This team has leadership, talent and toughness to ensure it reaches this mark, something no Knick team has managed since 2001/2. Despite recent setbacks, they remain on the right track. Keep the faith.