The Knicks would not have beaten any other NBA team than the one they were facing, the 1-14 Rockets, who entered the Garden with no depth, no chemistry, and no genuine expectation of ending their 13-game losing streak.
Was it possible for the Knicks to blow this one? Hey, a team that gives away two home games to the Orlando Magic before Thanksgiving is capable of losing to anyone on any given Saturday.
But even after losing five of their first eight Garden games, and even after scoring 13 points in the first quarter against Houston — thirteen!!! — and even after trailing with five minutes to go, the Knicks couldn’t possibly go down. Alec Burks was a whirling dervish on both sides of the ball (20 points, five steals), Evan Fournier actually played effectively enough to appear in the fourth quarter, and the Knicks survived a life-and-death struggle with the league’s worst team.
This was not exactly a worthy sequel to the 1994 NBA Finals.
“It wasn’t a smooth game,” Thibodeau said.
If this were a college basketball matchup, the Knicks would have been the struggling power-conference school in need of a near-guaranteed victory, and the Rockets would have been the near-anonymous mid-major hitting the road to exchange certain defeat for some visibility and a few bucks to upgrade facilities. If the Knicks had an athletic director, that AD would have been happy he or she put Houston on the schedule, especially given the procession of heavyweights on deck.
Actually, the Knicks do have an AD, just under the title of team president. His name is Leon Rose. And if the Knicks don’t right themselves over the long haul, you can go ahead and blame him.
First, the schedule: The Knicks will see the Bulls twice, the Lakers, Suns, Hawks, Nets, and Nuggets over the next seven games. They’ll then travel to San Antonio, Indiana, and Toronto before facing the defending champion Bucks and Steph Curry’s revived Golden State dynasty. That forbidding stretch will say a ton about who the Knicks are, where they are heading, and what Rose did or didn’t do to help them.
Rose did fine work last year, starting with the hiring of Thibodeau. Previous Knicks executives had the chance to give Thibodeau his dream job and didn’t. One source close to the situation told me in early 2016 that Thibs “would crawl to Madison Square Garden.” Credit Rose for letting him crawl.
The Knicks president pieced together a roster that stunned the league by going 41-31, earning the East’s fourth playoff seed before flaming out against the Hawks. The result was a rekindled love affair between the team and a broken fan base. Rose didn’t take any conspicuous public bows after the turnaround, because it’s not his way. Even in his former life as a big-time agent, he operated in the shadows.
But the flip side of that is the same low profile during troubled times. Rose won’t pull a Brian Cashman, who, with his Yankees two games over .500 last summer, told reporters, “We suck right now, as bad as you can be.” Thibodeau will be answering all the questions about the Knicks’ struggles, even if he isn’t the man most responsible for them. Thibs was the league’s Coach of the Year last season for a reason.
He wanted to bring back Reggie Bullock, a significant piece last season and a defense-first player who fits the coach’s culture. But instead of paying Bullock roughly what Dallas paid him — $30.5 million over three years — Rose gave Fournier $78 million over four years. The Knicks president also gave Kemba Walker $18 million over two years, meaning he hurt the team’s signature strength (defense) for two offensive-minded players who weren’t retained by a Celtics team that finished 36-36.
This isn’t to say that Fournier isn’t a nice NBA player, or that Walker’s homecoming wasn’t a great NBA story. But Fournier is limited and Walker is diminished. And again, the Celtics were a weaker team than the Knicks and didn’t see either as part of their future.
Entering Saturday’s game, Fournier and Walker were the two biggest problems with the Knicks’ flailing starting five. Before his 19-point effort against the Rockets, Fournier had scored 19 total points in his previous four games. He was shooting a career-low 40.6 percent from the field, and Thibodeau didn’t want to play him (or Walker) in the fourth quarter.
The Knicks have other major problems, including Julius Randle’s game, which isn’t nearly what it was last year. That one is on Randle and Thibodeau, not the team president, and it needs to be fixed as the Knicks prepare to face a brutal test over their next dozen games.
But if the Knicks continue to compromise their playoff aspirations in a muscled-up conference, well, Leon Rose is the one who changed the identity of this team. And he’s the one who will deserve most of the blame.
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