In a season full of a thousand questions for the New York Knicks, most of which they had (and have) no desire to answer, on Thursday night against the Nets, we got a few more:
1. Does this team have another turnaround in them after Mr. Hyde showed up in Brooklyn, resulting in a 94-82 drubbing that wasn't as close as the final score would indicate?
2. How much credit do the Knicks get for "holding" the Nets to 26.9 percent shooting, limiting them to an NBA record low eight made 2-point field goals, and forcing Brooklyn's starters into an 11-for-49 shooting night from the field?
3. Do shoot arounds actually matter? And for that matter, are the players and coach even attending the same one?
Let's start with that last one, as it was a major point of conversation in the locker room following Monday's home debacle against Washington. To a man, the players all said they lacked focus that day, and that it translated over to the game, with disastrous results.
Today, they claimed, was a different story. They agreed that whatever was missing to start the week was present post-Christmas, and it was part of why they flew around on defense as if they were a team full of G-Leaguers just trying to get another 10-day contract.
Even though Brooklyn was missing more than a few shots they normally make, especially as the game went on, the Knicks level of activity on the defensive end seemed to unnerve the Nets to the point that a normal level of comfort could never be reached.
Knicks head coach Mike Miller agreed, at least with that part, saying afterwards that his team "did a very good job with how we started, just making [Brooklyn] go through us to make some plays." He thought that this effort helped New York get off to its solid start, resulting in a first quarter that saw the Nets score just 15 points. Miller also commented on "how connected we were" throughout the evening. For a guy who's as low key as low key gets, he was as close to exuberant as one can ever expect to see.
Interestingly enough though, Miller didn't see anything different in the day's shoot around, and pointed to the fact that bad shoot arounds usually result in poor starts. The Knicks, meanwhile, got off to a 13-point lead on Monday, only to see it quickly evaporate. Chalk this up as another mystery in a year that's been full of them.
Whatever the reason, Miller has to be happy with how his team came out and didn't let up, and that included the work put in by his young rookie, RJ Barrett.
Barrett's season has been a mix of ebbs and flows, with games where he looks like a future perennial All Star sandwiched between stat lines like tonight: 2-for-10, with just five points. Among Knicks responsible for this one, he would seemingly be pretty far down the list, especially with Marcus Morris (22 points, 15 of which came in a dominant second half), Mitchell Robinson (a double double, his third of the season) and the unstoppable Julius Randle (a relentless 33 points, every one of which felt absolutely necessary) filling up the box score ahead of him.
But Barrett was perhaps most emblematic of why tonight was so different for New York than so many that came before it this season. Too often, this team has let their futility on one end affect what they do on the other.
Tonight, despite the fact that the Knicks never really got going on offense until the second half, they maintained focus where it mattered most. Perhaps that was true of no one more than RJ. He was targeted early and often, as the Nets tried to spring Joe Harris by moving him all over the court to get him the open looks that often drive their offense. Barrett stood his ground through it all.
When I asked Barrett after the game whether he made an effort to maintain that level of focus even though he was struggling to score, he gave an answer that was anything but what you'd expect from a teenager who just played his 31st NBA game.
"I'm trying to get a win," he said, sounding relieved more than anything else. "If I'm not scoring, I have other teammates who are. Julius had 30-something, Mook had 20-something. If I'm not scoring, somebody else'll do it...I'm just trying to do what the team needs."
That type of selfless attitude has also been present with Mitchell Robinson. Despite being the only player in the NBA to play over 600 minutes this season and average at least 15 points, 11 boards, 3 blocks and a steal per 36, he said afterwards that he "loves" coming off the bench.
"I feel like I bring energy," said the Knicks precocious big man while chomping on some salmon before having to hustle out to catch the team bus. He noted how he felt being a sub helped him stay out of foul trouble, but was quick to give credit to the starting five, who he said gives the bench guys their mojo, and who in turn they cheer for to help stay engaged.
Of course, if it were that easy, the Knicks wouldn't be sitting with eight wins against 24 losses, an even .250 winning percentage that at the very least has them ahead of last year's futile pace.
There is a long way to go in this season, of course, and perhaps even a few more twists and turns in store for a team that has already had their fair share. If they can translate the effort they played with tonight over to the what remains of the schedule, regardless of how they decide to approach the trade deadline, they should finish the year on a high note, or at least what counts as one 'round these parts.
But we could have said the same thing after more than a few games this season. Whether this wake up call is the one that finally sticks, the one that permeates their collective mindset, and they begin to approach things with a modicum of consistency that's been missing...all that remains to be seen.
We've said it several times already, but the answer should reveal itself before too long. As for whether we'll ever find out if the pregame shoot arounds have anything to do with it, well...that's a different story.