In a sports-movie world, this is the kind of thing that carries the day: teammates who are also friends, camaraderie that overcomes all obstacles. That is the goose-bump realm of team sports. For 50 years Knicks fans have treated four words — hit-the-open-man — like the holiest of gospels and that’s the ideal. All for one. One for all. All of that.
In the real world, mostly, that stuff is nice, but it rarely trumps talent. Talent rules the day.
In the NBA, talent is the law.
So we can spend an awful lot of time explaining why the Knicks aren’t going to compete for an NBA championship this year, or why they will be hard-pressed to hang on for one of the play-in seeds in the East. We can talk about a 14-15 record that sometimes seems a figment of the imagination, the result of millions of Knicks fans’ fervent fever dreams.
Or we can revel in the moment.
We can simply enjoy evenings like the ones the Knicks gave us Monday night, a 123-112 win over the Hawks in which every feel-good element of this feel-good team in this feel-good season was on display.
There was Julius Randle, of course, his 44 points and seven 3s a joy to behold. There was RJ Barrett, emerging from Tom Thibodeau’s recent fourth-quarter doghouse, adding 21 including a pair of back-breaking 3s down the stretch. There is the continued phenomenon of Immanuel Quickley, 16 points and five assists, thriving as Derrick Rose’s intern of choice. There is Nerlens Noel, who makes one big defensive play after another.
But beyond that is something else, something Thibodeau happily lent his voice to when the last Hawks’ push was set aside and the Knicks’ third win in a row was secured.
“I’ve said it from the start, this is a really great group of guys who are very enjoyable to be around,” Thibodeau said. “You could see the attitude and approach of everyone is excellent. They all care about each other and when you care for each other and when you play that way it leads to great camaraderie.”
Again: it’s a bottom-line sport, and a bottom-line league, and whether guys enjoy each other’s company and like to eat dinner together really shouldn’t play much into how a team is judged. But this Knicks team, given its place in recent Knicks’ history, has clearly latched itself onto the hearts and the imagination of its starved fans.
Knicks fans, after being abused by awful basketball for so long, crave a team like this — one that isn’t only sniffing .500 but seems to be having as much fun playing these games as the fans have watching them. Even in a cynical year like 2021, even in a jaded town like ours, that can still matter for something once in a while.
Talk to Knicks fans. Listen to them. They like that the Knicks so clearly like each other, that they enjoy playing together. They especially enjoy watching the way the Knicks have fallen in line behind Randle, who absolutely deserves a spot in the All-Star Game, who is such a galvanizing spirit he has elevated his teammates to play better simply by showing up.
“It’s hard not to put him in the game,” Barrett said. “What else does he have to do? The man’s an All-Star.”
Said Quickley: “It’s amazing to see, honestly. He puts so much work in, he’s a great role model for guys like me, something I look at, I’m inspired by how hard he works every day. He had 44 and 9 tonight and he’ll be one of the first guys in the gym tomorrow.”
Barrett and Quickley were joined by Theo Pinson commandeering Randle’s postgame MSG Network interview, electioneering on Randle’s behalf, smiles and laughs all around. Let that be the banner for this Knicks team, which has allowed so many of its fans to fall back in love with the game, and remember what it was that caused them to invest their souls in this franchise in the first place.
The success is as fragile as the 14-15 record; there are times when the season feels much like this game did: a crazy range of optimism and fear, knowledge that they aren’t as good as they look when they jump to an early 14-point lead nor as hapless as they look falling behind by seven in the third. It doesn’t take much to envision a losing streak on the horizon. It’s the NBA. Talent usually does the talking.
There’s time enough for that. For now? There’s a team that all but demands you watch, because they’re having so much fun right now. And why would you want to miss even a minute of that?