Everyone who lives and dies with the Knicks can recall Amar’e Stoudemire smiling his new $100 million smile and proclaiming: “The Knicks are back.”
The Knicks were not back then, and 11 years later, they’re not back now.
But after so many fast breaks to heartbreak across the years, after Derek Fisher and Phil Jackson and the triangle offense, after David Fizdale, after the Kristaps Porzingis flameout, Tom Thibodeau has called timeout on misery, and on the eve of the All-Star break, Knicks fans this time are not relieved that the season is half over.
They can start to believe again.
Their Knicks, 114-104 winners over the Pistons, are on the way back. Their Knicks are 19-18, the latest they have been over .500 in eight years. Their Knicks are a team again.
“It just feels like something good is happening,” Julius Randle wrote in the Players’ Tribune.
Something good happens when a star coach like Thibodeau arrives and gets his star player to buy in and everyone else follows.
The multifaceted, indefatigable Randle (27 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists) is the first Knicks All-Star since Porzingis and Thibodeau’s prime locker-room lieutenant. “M-V-P,” the mini-Garden crowd chanted during and after the game.
Randle has grown to love New York and New York has grown to love him.
“He’s a great worker and sets a great example for the team,” Thibodeau said, “and the impact on winning, it’s been huge. It’s not his individual statistics, it’s what he’s doing for the team, and that becomes contagious.”
Something good happens when Barrett (21 points), a Rising Star in his sophomore year, is a threat from downtown when he isn’t slashing downhill to the hoop and has regained the swagger he displayed at Duke.
“His preparation is giving him a lot of confidence,” Thibodeau said.
Something good happens when Elfrid Payton (20 points), back from a balky hamstring that cost him four games, was the best point guard on the floor even if Frank Ntilikina drilled three 3s in the second quarter.
Thibodeau is the best thing that has happened.
Best Knicks coach since Jeff Van Gundy.
“Culture is how you do everything,” Thibodeau said. “It’s not any one particular thing, it’s how you do everything.”
Thibodeau cannot turn the Knicks into heavyweight contenders overnight, but the signs of a burgeoning professionalism and a commitment to D-FENSE are unmistakable.
“It feels like we have a collective purpose,” Randle wrote.
And a hunger. “We’re not satisfied at all,” Barrett said.
Thibodeau has convinced players who had been crying out for a leader and a teacher that you have to earn the right to win. He loves coaching these players. They love getting better together one day at a time.
“I think we’re all engaged,” Barrett said. “We all have our mindset on the same goal, and we’re all working towards that.”
The Knicks are laughingstocks no more.
“We’re flipping the script on the reputation of our entire franchise,” Randle wrote.
The legendary Marv Albert, son of Brooklyn and Basket No. 1 at Manhattan Beach, was the voice of the Knicks when they won their NBA championships in 1970 and ’73. Red Holzman’s Willis Reed-Clyde Frazier teams remain the gold standard. That’s the way it is when Knicks fans find themselves trying to scratch a 48-year itch.
“They appreciate good defense, and they appreciate good passing,” Albert said. “That era was so popular because of the way they’d swing the ball, which is what Golden State did through their championship years. Steve Kerr believed in that, and so did [Spurs coach Gregg] Popovich. Those Knick teams were very smart. Red had five coaches on the floor, basically.”
The Pat Riley-Van Gundy Knicks were smart as well, but their identity was toughness and tenacity.
“Which also is appreciated by Knick fans,” Albert said. “It’s funny, if another team comes into the Garden and beats up the Knicks, fans complain. But when the Knicks had [Anthony] Mason and [Charles] Oakley and that group, they would just kill guys — the game was so different — and of course that was applauded.”
Mike Woodson is the last Knicks coach to win a playoff game. Thibodeau will be the next one. It may not happen this season. The second-half schedule is brutal.
“There’s some good things we did, obviously some things that we have to improve upon,” Thibodeau said.
Of course there are. Never forget, the guy’s not happy unless he’s miserable.
“The challenge will be great,” Thibodeau said, “so it should bring the best out in us, but just don’t change our approach, concentrate on improvement each and every day.”
Once Leon Rose and World Wide Wes and Scott Perry get him more horses, there is every reason to believe that Thibodeau will lead them to water and make them drink. Our Marc Berman asked what he would do during the break and Thibodeau cracked: “Turks and Caicos.” Even there, without a team to coach, he wouldn’t be happy unless he was miserable.