It was Charles Barkley, years ago, who gave the perfect description for the first few weeks of an NBA season.
“It can be tough,” Sir Charles bemoaned, “because the [lousy] teams don’t realize that they’re [lousy] yet.”
And so it was that the Cleveland Cavaliers were 3-0 heading into their game with the Knicks Tuesday night, after spending most of the last nine months hearing and reading about them being the clear dregs of the NBA. But the Cavs knocked off the Hornets and the Pistons, then creamed the 76ers by 24 points in a game that left NBA jaws just as agape as when they saw that Knicks-Bucks score the other night.
It’s important to set it up this way, to understand and appreciate the fresh step of progress the Knicks pulled off Tuesday night. Based on 20 years of testimony, this was a perfect-storm setup for Knicks calamity at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, a familiar formula:
Sunday’s unexpected sip of prosperity against Milwaukee;
Plus (+) one undermanned opponent lying in wait;
Plus (+) the banged-up Knicks, reduced to an eight-man rotation;
Equals (=) catastrophe. Bank on it. We’ve seen this movie for years.
Except a funny thing happened on the way to the standard-issue ending: the Knicks backed up their Bucks masterpiece with one that wasn’t quite as elegant but every bit as satisfying. This 95-86 win not only evened the Knicks’ mark at 2-2 — and laugh if you must, but every day the Knicks spend at or near .500 this year is a win — but provided something of the lunch-pail blueprint the Knicks hope to employ this year.
“Top to bottom,” Julius Randle said, “we’re competing. We’re competing every night.”
Place Randle at the very top, and so far he is the very best basketball story in New York City even with the stardust twins quartered in Brooklyn. Randle spent his summer running, shedding some excess poundage, working on his game — and, more importantly, completely buying into the version of himself and the vision of himself that new coach Tom Thibodeau had crafted for him.
It’s a small sample size, sure, but Randle, after 192 minutes of season, is a completely transformed player. Where his shot selection was once enough to make fans wince, now he almost passes up too many open looks. Where he would melt in the face of double-teams he now fearlessly welcomes them.
Tuesday he was 28 points and 12 rebounds and 11 assists — and, for a little spice, also nine turnovers — and he has quickly become the engine that drives this team, that makes Thibodeau’s Xs and Os and his motivational mantras work. He makes them real.
“I feel he’s more focused now,” Knicks center Mitchell Robinson said. “He’s coming and coming strong. In the summertime all the hours he put in is paying off.”
The encouraging thing is that the Knicks won, and won going away, and won without forfeiting the lead once over the game’s final 40 minutes without playing anything close to a perfect game. There were 26 turnovers, and 24 Cavs points off them, so many of them careless and unforced. They missed eight free throws. They begged the Cavs to make it a game six different times.
And never let it happen.
“I liked our energy,” Thibodeau said. “Our defense is a work in progress and not where it needs to be. But even when we’re making mistakes we’re flying around and challenging shots. It makes a difference.”
There is so much different around this team right now. Reduced to eight healthy players within Thibodeau’s Circle of Trust, they loaded up on minutes — 44 for Randle, 41 for Elfrid Payton (14 points, eight rebounds, seven assists), 39 for RJ Barrett (12 points, seven boards, two steals). Reggie Bullock stepped up in Alec Burks’ absence and made 3s. Kevin Knox was plus-14 for his 16 minutes of work. The center tandem of Robinson and Nerlens Noel clocked in with a combined 13 points, 17 rebounds and five blocks.
“Overall,” said Randle, “we try to play the game the right way and make the right plays.”
Said Thibodeau: “The important thing is to find a way to win. We believed we had enough to win with.”
It’s early. The [lousy] teams don’t know they’re [lousy] teams yet. Good teams like the Bucks can lose by 20 to the Knicks one night, then beat the Heat in Miami by 47 two nights later. Too early for declarations. Too early for assumptions. But never too early to enjoy what you’re watching. Fun is fun. Good ball is good ball. And, damn: it’s good to see it.
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