Last season’s 17-win Knicks campaign feels like a lifetime ago, thanks to a new attitude – and roster.
Gone is the despair and apathy that plagued last year’s squad, as this current batch enters every game believing they belong on the floor, regardless of the opponent.
The Knicks (8-6) are a half-game out of first place, and are on a four-game winning streak following impressive performances in Oklahoma City and Houston. It’s been an impressive stretch for the Knicks considering they haven’t won this many consecutive games since April 2014. And their win over the Rockets was their first in Houston since Nov. 2004.
The culture is finally changing for the better in New York, as they’re playing to the level of the superior competition, while beating the teams they should. The Knicks are also showing a clutch gene, as they’re 4-1 in games decided by five points or fewer.
Add to the fact that they’re finding ways to win on the road, means the team is showing growth. New York is 5-2 away from the Garden, its best road start since 2000. And to put that into perspective, they only had seven road wins all of last season.
The holdover players have collective amnesia – and who could blame them, considering 2014-15 was the worst season in the franchise’s storied history. Carmelo Anthony regularly feigns forgetfulness when asked to compare last season to this start.
“I don’t remember last year. At least, I try not to,” Anthony said following a recent practice. “But I can tell you that we’ve definitely come a long way since the first game of this season even.”
Anthony and rookie Kristaps Porzingis have rightfully grabbed the headlines and havereceived a lion’s share of the credit for the turnaround. But it hasn’t been a two-man show. Team president Phil Jackson’s plan is finally taking shape, as he’s filled his roster with solid, hard-working veterans to balance out the young legs. For every Langston Galloway, Derrick Williams, Jerian Grant, or Porzingis, there’s a veteran like Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon, Sasha Vujacic, and Anthony in their ears, making sure they become better pros and stay the course.
“We’re growing as a team … and I think that [camaraderie] helps us finish games better,” said Calderon, who added the recent road trip has been a catalyst. “I think it builds confidence and trust when it’s just you on the road. We’re trusting each other, and that is seen in our wins.”
Calderon, a trusted veteran who has the ear of every player, said he’s been helping the younger guys particularly. He noted that the energy level of the neophytes has been infectious.
“It may be tougher at the end of the season for them [due to fatigue], but this road trip they’re excited, and it showed,” Calderon noted. “They’re always very excited. And I think that’s needed. … They’ve helped just as much.”
Head coach Derek Fisher also noted the excitement and professionalism have been key attributes for success. Suffering through last season’s campaign, Fisher said this year’s squad has a totally different feel, and it’s showing in the results.
“It’s in our daily approach to what we’re doing. Every guy has bought into our philosophies. They’re coming in early and staying late, [and] doing all the things necessary to take care of their bodies, their minds, [and] to be prepared to play,” said Fisher, noting the mindset has changed dramatically. “It takes time to change those [bad] habits, but we feel like we’ve done a lot of work in those areas. The players know we have [their] best interests in mind. They know if you’re really committed to their individual development.”
The biggest development has obviously been with Porzingis. His effort against the Rockets on Saturday night (24 points, 14 rebounds, and seven blocks) was impressive, as he became the first Knicks rookie to ever have at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, and five blocks. The 20-year old’s display was so good that the last time his stat-line was duplicated by a player that young was when Shaquille O’Neal did it twice in 1992-93.
The recent success can be attributed to a melding of the young and older, and to a man, they feel as if this early success can be a springboard for better things to come.
“This was our first extended road trip, so for us to get tested and see how we’ve responded has been big,” said Anthony. “Guys are getting comfortable out there. And guys are prepared and ready to provide bigger roles and do what they have to do. We’re all working hard. It’s starting to pay off.”
-The Knicks’ overhaul begins with defense, as they are the eighth-stingiest defense in the league, allowing 97.5 points per game. They’re also fifth in defensive field-goal percentage (42.4), and the best in defending the 3-pointer (28.3 percent). Conversely, they were ranked 21st, 27th, and 30th, respectively, in those three categories last season.
-Even the Knicks’ D-League affiliate can’t be stopped these days, as the Westchester Knicks, the worst team in the D-League last season, are currently 4-0.