Although the final score was close, and the outcome was in doubt until the game’s last moments, much of what happened at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night could be called mundane.
The Knicks won a game in which they were neither perfect nor putrid, against a middle-of-the-road Eastern Conference opponent. But in outlasting the Cleveland Cavaliers, 105-103, they saw reasons for optimism.
“It wasn’t the cleanest, it wasn’t the smoothest, but we found a way to grind it out and get the win,” Knicks guard Jalen Brunson said. “It’s easy to win when everyone’s clicking and the ball’s going in the hoop, but can we win games when things aren’t going our way? This was a good steppingstone for us.”
This has been a season in which the Knicks are looking for positive gradations, small signs of progress that they can use to build toward something bigger. Content to let other teams soak up headlines, they are operating mostly out of sight, despite being in an N.B.A. market whose harsh glare can make that nearly impossible, and where slow progress can be made to feel like failure. The Knicks instead are working toward a quiet competence.
“Sometimes we fall short, but they’re great workers, they study, they come in they try to do the right thing every day,” Knicks Coach Tom Thibodeau said of his players. “When you have those type of guys, they’re going to improve. A big part of learning is trial and error; you have to go through it.”
The Knicks (26-23) have the seventh best record in the Eastern Conference. They are one game out of sixth, which would grant them a playoff berth without having to participate in the four-team play-in tournament for the final two spots in each conference.
If the Knicks finish with a winning record this season, it will be only the second time in the past decade that has happened. Through years and years of futility, dysfunction was more of a regular occurrence. There was a feud with an alumnus, and a celebrity fan. Before the coronavirus pandemic halted the 2020 season, fans were chanting “sell the team” at Knicks owner James Dolan.
They had been shunned by free agents, most pointedly in 2019 when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant chose the Nets instead.
But that summer the Knicks began building this roster. They drafted RJ Barrett third overall and signed Julius Randle, who made eight 3-pointers on Tuesday night, to a three-year contract and then an extension.
This summer, the Knicks were in the mix to trade for Donovan Mitchell, who was born in Westchester County, but the Cavaliers nabbed him instead, giving up three players, three unprotected first-round picks and two pick swaps.
Some thought the Knicks should have traded for Mitchell last summer, and he has played superbly this season. He has averaged a career high 28.4 points a game, and he scored 71 points against the Bulls on Jan. 2. He had missed the previous three games with a groin strain, but returned to play in his home state. On Tuesday night, Mitchell scored 24 points, including six three-pointers.
When they needed to, though, the Knicks were able to stop him.
Twice in the game’s final minutes, with the Knicks leading 103-100, Mitchell drove toward the basket and had his shot blocked — once by Barrett and once by Isaiah Hartenstein.
Mitchell tried again with 4.4 seconds left in the game and the Knicks leading by just 2. He tried to elevate and dunk the ball, he said later, but felt his legs cramp and his groin pull again.
“Same as before, I don’t know what comes next,” he said, glumly, after the game, and then sighed.
A counterargument to the idea that the Knicks should have traded for Mitchell is that despite his play, the gulf between the Knicks and Cavaliers has not been especially large. Cleveland is in fifth place in the Eastern Conference and just three games better than the Knicks.
Brunson was the Knicks’ major addition this summer, signing in free agency after starting his career with the Dallas Mavericks. That move came at a cost, as the N.B.A. determined that the Knicks had begun speaking with Brunson before the free agency window opened and penalized them one second-round draft pick.
And while Brunson was a less splashy addition than Mitchell would have been, he has excelled with his new team. Heading into Tuesday’s game, he was averaging 22.5 points and 6.3 assists. In January, he had averaged 28.3 points a game, and scored more than 30 five times, including a 44-point effort in a close loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
“One thing I’ve learned and stayed consistent with is no matter what happens outside those lines, nothing really affects me,” Brunson said. He added, “Obviously playing in New York it’s a bigger stage, eyes always on you, but I just try my best not to worry about that.”
With his help, the Knicks won eight consecutive games in December, climbing from 10th place in the East to sixth during that streak.
There have been lulls, too. Tuesday’s win snapped a four-game losing streak, and the Knicks are figuring out how to fill a hole left by their injured starting center Mitchell Robinson.
It’s all still a work in progress, but Tuesday night they closed out a game, where on other nights they might not have. They fought back after falling behind by 8 points in the third quarter.
“How you get the urgency to get that done?” Thibodeau pondered, rhetorically, after the game. “Not to get discouraged, to just get more determined.”
As Thibodeau sees it, the answer is a focus on little unglamorous things — securing an offensive rebound, going after a loose ball, deflecting a pass.
“Just keep concentrating on the improvement; everyone put the team first,” Thibodeau said. “And we know this is — we’ve got a long way to go.”