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Knicks Reap Immediate Benefits From Players-Only Dinner

The New York Knicks reportedly held a players' only meeting as they embarked on a difficult road trip. So far, it's yielded consecutive victories.

Looking for dinner and a show? The New York Knicks are, apparently, more than happy to accommodate.

Per Steve Popper of Newsday, the Knicks opened a five-game road trip that began with a visit to Salt Lake City on Tuesday night with a players-only meeting. The get-together was done over dinner and reportedly enacted by Julius Randle, who has been no stranger to the team's struggles. Popper further claims that those who partook "stressed it was positive" and allowed for team bonding.

Early mediocrity for the Knicks (8-7) is perhaps welcome after enduring untold amounts of hardwood hardships throughout the new century. The team won only a single playoff series since 2001 and even mere winning records have been hard to obtain, having earned only one (2021) in the last eight years. Its last in a full 82-game season came in 2013. 

The concept of a players-only meeting is perhaps one of the most dire yet dreamy scenarios in sports. It's something only invoked when things hit rock bottom, but at least it shows that the players are searching for a solution head-on rather than hiding from their woes. 

In either case, however, the meeting appeared to produce the desired effect: behind a diverse scoring effort and clutch efforts from Jalen Brunson, the Knicks became the first team to beat the Utah Jazz at Vivint Arena this season, emerging with a 118-111 triumph in the first game since the meeting on Tuesday. They repeated the feat of ending perfect streaks at home on Wednesday, using another strong fourth quarter to top the Nikola Jokić-less Denver Nuggets. 

So, in the grand scheme of things ... what does it mean? We investigate ...

Why Now?

Despite having written some hefty checks during the offseason, the Knicks were hardly expected to be playing deep into the summer. Leaping into the Eastern Conference's top six, automatic playoff spots, in fact, seemed like a bit of a gargantuan task, with host duties in the first four out's Play-In Tournament.

To that end, it's not like the Knicks have been disappointing so far, at least when it came to their long-term outlook. Their record indicates that they've flirted with .500 since tip-off has just driven that point home. Heck, between Jalen Brunson mostly living up to his big contract and the Knicks' ability to take care of business against lesser competition, one could almost argue they were trending ever so slightly in the right direction.

Yet, there was undoubtedly an aura of heightened expectations, thanks primarily to so many names faced with make-or-break seasons: Brunson had to prove he was a top offensive option. Randle had to show that his Most Improved Player campaign from 2021 was no fluke. Hypothetical trade candidates like RJ Barrett and Quentin Grimes (who has missed most of the year injured) had to make fans forget about Donovan Mitchell. Cam Reddish and Obi Toppin, first-round draftees struggling to live up to their rookie billing, could well be playing for their NBA futures. 

The past week's efforts seemed to spit in the face of the urgency necessary for the Knicks to move forward on both a personal and team level. There's no better way to get that message across than by holding each other accountable. 

What's Next For Thibs?

Many have noted that the last time the Knicks held a players-only meeting, head coach Tom Thibodeau's predecessor David Fizdale was fired shortly after. Many have taken this dinner to raise the temperature on Thibodeau's metaphorical seat, one that was already among the warmest in the Association entering the 2022-23 season. 

This is hardly the first time that Thibodeau has faced scrutiny about his job security and, at least until the Knicks go on any kind of sustained winning streak, it most certainly won't be the last. There's no reason to believe that management will jettison Thibodeau during the road trip: even if the Knicks hadn't just won two in a row, relieving him of duty hundreds of miles away from home would bring about unwanted headlines, the last thing this franchise needs. 

The meeting has apparently forced a little something new out of Thibodeau as the team continues to work through Mitchell Robinson's injury: each of the last two wins has seen the Knicks work with a nine-man unit. Some could question Thibodeau's methods: fans likely aren't broken up about Evan Fournier's departure from the rotation but Grimes remains "situational" as each has been relegated to bench duty. But the meeting was apparently enough for Thibodeau to consider switching things up a little bit.

It helps that the reserves lucky enough to survive the notoriously hard-to-please Thibodeau's screening process have taken advantage of their expanded minutes: limited to 12th man status in the early going, Jericho Sims had a double-double in Utah. Both Sims and Reddish, the latter taking over Fournier's spot in the opening five, have done what they can to man the Knicks' defensive ship, which has straightened out after the bizarre home loss to Oklahoma City on Sunday. Immanuel Quickley is best known as a shooter but has found new ways to contribute as he tries to reboot his outside game: he pulled down 16 rebounds against Atlanta earlier this month and has also averaged 4.3 assists and 2.7 steals over his last three. 

Randle Handles

Randle has been burdened with plenty of responsibility in his third season as a Knick: this year, where he's expected to atone for the disappointing follow-up to his All-Star/Most Improved Player campaign, is his first on a $117 million contract extension. Advanced stats have hardly been kind to him in the early going and some have clamored to see him usurped by Toppin. Some might've felt it was perhaps bold of Randle to call the meeting when he's been a headliner of the Knicks' struggles.

In these past two games, however, Randle has been a major influence behind the Knicks' mini-surge. The Denver victory was secured via a clutch team-up with Brunson, was the two accounted for all but two points over a 15-5 run over the last 4:07 via basket or assist to secure the victory. Randle ended the affair with a season-best 34 points united with 11 rebounds, the last of the latter being the haul in after Jamal Murray's futile, would-be equalizer as time expired.

Brunson had three reasons why the Knicks prevailed in the Rockies: "Julius Randle, Julius Randle, and Julius Randle."

The Knicks have seen flashes of pure brilliance from Randle before. If they hadn't, they wouldn't have granted that extension, as Randle was the face of their 2021 playoff trip ... as well as the struggles after it. The Knicks, alas, aren't blessed with the 17-game schedule that their gridiron counterparts across the river have. If they were, Randle would be headlining a push into the East's automatic six, a chance to avoid the mediocrity of the Play-In Tournament entirely. But to see Randle embrace larger responsibilities on and off the court could well become the most meaningful thing he's done in a Knicks uniform. 

Now comes the hard part: sustaining it.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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