These Knicks have chance to be more than a playoff squad

Likable. It is a funny word to use to describe a 32-27 team in a pro sports league, in which the terms of engagement with the paying customers are usually reduced to this: If you are a credible

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Likable. It is a funny word to use to describe a 32-27 team in a pro sports league, in which the terms of engagement with the paying customers are usually reduced to this:

If you are a credible contender for a championship, the fan base will like you. If you are not a credible contender for a championship, the fan base won’t like you.

The 2020-21 Knicks represent an exception to the rule. Likable is the most appropriate adjective applied to them, but it’s only a step on the journey to an attainable and much more significant word:

Memorable.

These Knicks have a chance to be remembered in New York forever, and they need to handle that chance like they would the most precious gemstone.

Entering Wednesday night’s home game against a hot Hawks team, it’s important to note that the Knicks’ seven-game winning streak did not notarize them as a serious threat to win this year’s NBA title. Crazier things have happened, no doubt, but the franchise’s first championship since 1973 still remains less likely than the Knicks landing in the play-in tournament, which awaits seeds No. 7 through 10. They did have a chance to take temporary hold of fourth place in the Eastern Conference in the matchup with the Hawks, which would be a meaningful achievement 60 games deep into a 72-game season.

Fourth place at year’s end means hosting a first-round playoff series. Who would’ve ever believed that the same Knicks expected to win about 22 games would be pondering that, and looking down at the Celtics and Heat in the standings, as the regular season turns for home?

Rising star RJ Barrett and the Knicks have plenty to smile about.
AP Photo

As much as Tom Thibodeau demands that his players focus on the game right in front of them, the coach said Wednesday night that he has talked to them about the significance of playoff seeding.

“This is their business,” he said, “to understand the league, where you are and why each game is so important.”

They’ve absolutely treated each game like it matters. New York has fallen hard for this group because of the way it competes every night, and because its work ethic matches the city’s and because the veterans seem to enjoy the wide-eyed vibrancy and potential of the kids.

It doesn’t hurt that these Knicks are coached by a tri-state local, Thibodeau, who long saw this as his dream job. “He would crawl to Madison Square Garden,” someone close to him told me in 2016. And crawl Thibs eventually did, with the trace of a smile that was rarely seen in his previous stops in Chicago and Minnesota.

But in the end, this year’s Knicks are the beneficiaries of the incompetence that marked their predecessors for the better part of two decades. Those Knicks were so unlikable that the bar for earning the fans’ affection was set at an artificially low level. For any Knicks diehard worn to the nub by year after year of defective products, it’s been a pleasure to watch this season’s club play with a purpose, establish standards and build a program that should lead to bigger and better things.

Knicks fans really don’t ask for much. Despite their flaws, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire will always be remembered fondly in the city for joining the Knicks when others were running away from them. Melo, in particular, will be celebrated for briefly ending the fan base’s misery with that 54-win season and trip to the conference semis in 2013.

Today’s Knicks? Chances are, their best-case scenario is earning one of the top six seeds to stay out of the play-in, and then winning a first-round series before falling to one of the heavyweights in a hard-fought conference semi. Maybe the Knicks will score a major upset and reach the conference finals. Or maybe they’ll lose in the first round.

Either way, if these Knicks are proven responsible for creating a culture based on grit and accountability that ultimately produces a consistent contender and, yes, a championship team, New York will love them long after they are gone. And some of them will be gone when the real winning starts.

So for the good player who became a star on the Knicks’ watch (Julius Randle), for the youngsters on the rise (RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley) and for those weathered vets who have contributed so much (the likes of Alec Burks, Reggie Bullock, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson), the rest of this season amounts to a golden opportunity.

Finish what you started, and you will forever be treated in this city as a champion.

Even if you weren’t around for the ticker-tape parade. 

This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Ian O'Connor

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