How Knicks continue to win as they close in on No. 4 seed in Eastern Conference

Feb 24, 2023; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) celebrates with guard Jalen Brunson (11) after the game against the Washington Wizards during the second half at Capital One Arena.
Feb 24, 2023; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) celebrates with guard Jalen Brunson (11) after the game against the Washington Wizards during the second half at Capital One Arena. / Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Knicks are one of the hottest teams in the NBA, fresh off their seventh consecutive victory in a beatdown of their crosstown rivals. Entering Thursday, the Knicks are fifth in the Eastern Conference and only 1.5 games out of securing home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.

It’s been a remarkable turnaround, as just three months ago they sat at 10-13 with their head coach on the hot seat and roster construction in question. What’s changed since?

Dec. 4 is the pivotal date New York fans point to -- that being when Tom Thibodeau shook up the rotation and sparked a frenzied rally in his team. Benched were higher-paid but ineffective veterans in favor of younger, friskier options.

The results have been something out of the fanbase’s dreams. New York has gone 27-14 from that point, jumping from an average offense and 23rd-ranked defense before the switch to a top-five offense and top-seven net rating.

Changing the rotation kicked off an eight-game winning streak, but many of those wins were against lesser opponents. The Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors were injury-riddled, the Charlotte Hornets and Chicago Bulls unexceptional, and some of these came right down to the wire.

A five-game losing streak suggested some correction was coming, but the Knicks looked different, barely falling short in those games and responding with another tear of seven wins in eight games. Starting center Mitchell Robinson went down with an injury soon after, missing close to a month, presenting a legitimate challenge to New York’s newfound winning ways.

It didn’t matter. The Knicks held firm, going 8-6 in his absence, partially thanks to a trade deadline upgrade in Josh Hart, and have yet to lose since his acquisition while having a +67 in four games since Robinson returned.

They’ve amassed a number of signature wins -- beating the Boston Celtics twice, Cleveland Cavaliers twice, and the Philadelphia 76ers is no small feat.

There’s plenty of credit to dole out, from Leon Rose’s roster building, to Thibodeau’s midseason switch all the way down the roster, but we have to start with Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson. To say the two have played like All-Stars wouldn’t be doing them justice.

Randle is putting up 27.2 points, 11.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists on 46.2 percent shooting from the field and 35.3 percent from three since the rotation change. He’s had 15 30-point games in that stretch, three of which eclipsed 40, and has remained the NBA’s iron man, playing every single night.

Perhaps most impressive has been his leadership, especially on the defensive end. Not only is it a complete 180 from last year’s pout fest, but the terrific shape he’s in combined with his effort on defense has maximized his potential as a stopper and set the example for the rest of the team.

One problem the Knicks had early in the season, even evident from their on-paper roster before that, was the lack of an one-on-one defensive stoppers against the NBA’s elite 6-foot-8 plus wings. When RJ Barrett and Quentin Grimes fall short, Randle has been that guy, stifling names like Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram and Kawhi Leonard in recent games.

Brunson has been a one-man army offensively, putting up 25.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists on 48.5 percent shooting from the field and 45.1 percent (!) shooting from three since Dec. 4. He may have missed the All-Star team, but just secured Player of the Month honors after a 28.4 points per game February, including two 40-point outbursts.

The diminutive guard has been a puzzle for opposing defenses since he’s started making nearly half of his threes, largely off the bounce, and adjusted to more aggressive schemes thrown his way. Nothing seems to faze him, and he’s able to get whatever shot he wants.

New York’s bigs -- Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein -- have done a tremendous job locking down the paint and securing boards on both ends. Their presence on the offensive glass deflates opponents that have to reset their defense after finally getting a stop on one of the league’s most physical, draining teams.

On the wings, Barrett and Grimes have had their good weeks and bad, but are defending extremely well and knocking down enough catch-and-shoot threes to spread the offense and create attacks on closeouts. Barrett is crucial as an offensive centerpiece who can create something when their main options are off, and had a huge December and January before slipping a bit.

Immanuel Quickley has been the X-factor, turning around a slow start with added minutes and ball control once Derrick Rose was benched. He’s built himself a Sixth Man of the Year case behind his elite defense and explosive shot-making.

In his last 33 games, Quickley is averaging just shy of 16 points a night on 48.3 percent shooting from the field and 39.7 percent from deep, chasing down boards and harassing ball-handlers. There’s no surprise he has one of the team’s best point differentials, often closing tight games for Thibodeau.

Then there’s the latest addition in Hart, who seems to have been acquired from Thibodeau’s dreams and has yet to lose a game in a Knicks uniform. New York is outscoring teams by 25.7 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court.

When he checks in, expect automatic energy. No opponent's defensive rebound is safe, as Hart is there to fly in from the three-point line to try and deflect or steal it.

Lazy passes get swept out of the sky and taken coast-to-coast for a lay-up. He’s managed to average 12.4 points on ridiculous shooting splits by seemingly wanting it more than everybody else, and trusting his jumper once again.

This concoction of individual talent buying into a high-effort scheme has resulted in the best Knicks team we’ve seen since 2012-13. The Knicks won 54 games that season, and have had a 54-win pace since the rotation change.

The playoffs will tell us how much of this is real, but these Knicks look built to take that challenge on. We’re witnessing one of the best stretches in the franchise’s recent history, which may not mean much, but has been incredible to watch.