Examining how the 2020-21 Knicks became a winning team

Knicks treated Obi Toppin, Tom Thibodeau, RJ Barrett

The scene outside Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue Saturday night seemed to be taking place in another dimension. Knicks fans celebrating, hooting and hollering, dancing, all because their team notched a .500 record near the season’s midpoint. It was an emotional outpouring, jarring to watch from afar mid-pandemic and years removed from anything resembling such a display from Knicks fans.

The next night, New York defeated Detroit to improve their record to 18-17 and temporarily secure the East’s fourth-best record to themselves. Safe to say, the hype levels of Knicks fandom are at a peak unmatched by anything since the Carmelo Anthony era. Winning is back in town and is seemingly here to stay.

Many parties deserve credit for putting this team together, with some of its building blocks coming into place via leadership past. However it’s the 7-2 stretch over the last nine games that catapulted New York from in the hunt to leading the pack, and a few select developments helped make it happen. Here’s how the Knicks turned themselves into a winning team in two short weeks.

RJ Barrett making the leap

After an up-and-down rookie season and a shaky offensive start to his sophomore campaign, Barrett began losing some of his luster as a prized prospect. Two months later and things have flipped 180 degrees. This is a leap straight out of Knicks fans’ dreams, with Barrett fine tuning his jumper and looking a year wiser everywhere else.

Barrett’s 34.5% three-point shooting clip on the year, though improved, doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Take out five December games, and RJ’s shooting 40% from three in his last 30 outings. If you’re wondering which way that’s trending, he’s up to 51.7% from range since the Derrick Rose trade.

This newfound stroke has carried over to the free throw line, where Barrett is making 72.9% of those. He’s become efficient enough to open things up for his driving game or remain effective offensively when it’s not there. In recent games, it’s allowed him to take on more of a scoring role, especially with Elfrid Payton out. Barrett’s already eclipsed his 20-point game total from last year despite shooting only one extra shot a night.

Julius Randle earning his spot

It’s usually the All-Star snubs causing a ruckus once rosters are announced, dropping 30+ points every other game in spite of all in the basketball universe who wronged them. Julius Randle, on the other hand, quietly went about making the team and then proceeded to make quick work of those “snubs” one by one, in front of any fan still in doubt of his case’s legitimacy.

In this 7-2 stretch, Randle is putting up 26.6 points, 11 rebounds and 4.6 assists a night on 52/50/83 shooting splits, in wins over Russell Westbrook’s Washington Wizards, Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks (44 point game for good measure), Domantas Sabonis’s Indiana Pacers and Jerami Grant’s Detroit Pistons. He’s quite simply cemented his All-Star case and rendered all arguments opposed null.

Early in the season there may have been some nervousness as to whether Randle could keep up that level of play. His acceptance and growth in the point-forward role holding true, while not suffering from the supposed fatigue that came with Tom Thibodeau’s rotation shook those concerns off. His taking it to another level in recent games is opening the minds of Knicks fans up to what his ceiling could be.

Point guard play

Some small sample though provocative numbers about the Knicks since Rose arrived: they are 7-3 since his arrival with the best defense in the league and 15th-best offense, where they usually rank in the pits. Rose himself is averaging 7.2 assists per-36 minutes, which would fall only short of his career-best season, and is shooting 45.5% from three as a Knick.

He’s aided by Immanuel Quickley, who although doesn’t have the same touch on his floater game, is shooting 44.2% from deep in that same span, and until recently Payton, who was playing some of his most efficient basketball and putting up double figures nightly before getting hurt. Since he’s been out New York put up its highest scoring game and hasn’t fell below 100 points yet.

Having added shooting and creation at the one has helped shift the Knicks in this upwards trajectory, and should have an effect on future rotation decisions. Rose’s and the Knicks play at large in this stretch makes it hard not to start him. Either way, he’s helped lift New York basketball to heights unseen in some time, and fans are hoping there’s more where that came from

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