MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Though the baseball lockout is over, the Knicks’ season may not be, as they finish their six-game trip Friday at FedExForum, no longer the Memphis blues singing.
Amid Wednesday’s 127-97 blowout triumph at Dallas that gave the Knicks their first three-game winning streak since early January came a spot of symbolism too.
Perhaps it will become the turning point of this disappointing season, the night they shook free of being compared to last season’s magical 41-31 squad. One week ago, the Knicks were reeling on a seven-game losing streak. Late Wednesday, the rookies were singing “Happy Birthday” in the locker room to team president Leon Rose.
One of the spiritual leaders of the 2020-21 Knicks was their starting shooting guard Reggie Bullock, who left for Dallas as a free agent. On Wednesday, Bullock looked like he had seen an orange-and-blue-ghost, going 0-for-8 (all 3-pointers) and missing both his free throws.
That morning Tom Thibodeau had waxed eloquently about Bullock’s “heart and toughness.” By late in the evening, the Knicks coach — for a change — waxed eloquently about his 2021-22 team, which has gone through a lot of revised rotations and now boast a compelling one, accidentally.
“We’re tied together defensively and offensively. Guys are sharing the ball, making plays for each other,” Thibodeau said. “When you do that, you can get into a rhythm. We can’t feel too good about ourselves. We’ve got to get ready for Memphis, and Memphis is rolling.”
Indeed, the Grizzlies (45-22) rolled through the Garden, posting a 120-108 victory Feb. 3 in a game they dominated from the opening tap. All-Star point guard Ja Morant went wild in the first half, but now the Knicks have a different look as they arrive on Beale Street.
“We’re going to try to go in there and get that one too,” said RJ Barrett averaging 24 points since the All-Star break. “Last game at the Garden didn’t go the way we wanted it to. We’re going to go in there and give it all we got.”
Morant will face starting point guard Alec Burks then deal with the young, pestering backcourt tandem of rookie Miles McBride and sophomore Immanuel Quickley — two combo guards who make a gritty, if undersized, pairing.
With Thibodeau no longer having to delicately handle the Kemba Walker situation, Burks is finding himself. Against the Mavericks, he posted 15 points 11 rebounds, five assists and was a plus-26 in 39 minutes.
It’s another test,” Thibodeau said. “Look, they’re a great team. They’re playing great basketball. They’re fast. They got a number of good players and with Ja, the pressure he puts on you. [Desmond] Bane is a great competitor and Jaren Jackson. … They’re a really good team.”
Thibodeau has touted all across this six-game trip that he’s liked how the Knicks have played since the break, despite losing their first three games. They were within one of Miami in the final seconds of the third quarter, held a three-point lead with 8:20 left versus the 76ers at the Garden, then blew a 16-point halftime lead at Philadelphia.
Phoenix was the most traumatic. The Knicks had the game in the bag before Julius Randle got ejected late in the third quarter. They still would’ve hung on if not for a miraculous banked-in Cam Johnson 3-pointer at the buzzer.
But since the Phoenix fiasco, the Knicks have flourished — routing the Clippers, Kings and Mavericks by a combined 69 points. Yes, this has been a euphoric ride for the club pronounced dead. It stands 3 ¹/₂ games out of a play-in scenario with 16 to play.
“I told them that, like each game I thought we played really well. We didn’t have a whole lot to show for it, but I thought we were playing good basketball. Now we’re starting to scratch out the winsWe’ve just got to keep going, We’ve been emphasizing all year how important it is to be mentally tough when you’re facing adversity. That’s what we’re doing.”
Though Randle still won’t participate in pregame lineup introductions during road games as part of a new warm-up ritual, he’s raised his proficiency to last season’s level since the last western trip. He’shas been a rugged runaway train in romping into the paint for baskets, and is averaging 20.1 points and 10 rebounds. He’s racked up 26.1 ppg in the past 14 games.
When the Mavericks made their big run in the third quarter Wednesday to cut the lead to four, Randle, playing in his hometown of Dallas, plowed into the trenches for points.
“I put a little pressure on the officials,” Randle said. “[The Mavericks] don’t really have any rim protection on the team. So I was just like, ‘I’m going to get the rim, use my size, my speed, get to the rim.’ ”
By the end, Randle was chattering, “This is my gym! This is my gym!” And he still has time to make it his season.