By: Robbie Stratakos

The New York Knicks are in the midst of a season of growth and promise. Some of that optimism can be squashed if they don’t make the playoffs. The key to them punching their ticket to the spring festivities is them keeping their defensive identity and shooting efficiently from distance. 

The hallmark of head coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotation is defense and grit. The Knicks went into Sunday first in the NBA in opponent points per game (104.7), opponent field goal percentage (44.3 percent) and opponent three-point shooting percentage (33.6 percent). They defend well in isolation, secure the perimeter and play with cohesion defensively. 

The Knicks have gradually improved their outside shooting this season; they went into Sunday 12th in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage (37.5 percent). Julius Randle, who has been one of the best frontcourt players in the NBA this season, Alec Burks, Reggie Bullock and rookie sensation Immanuel Quickley contribute to that efficiency. 

Currently 24-22, the Knicks have possession of the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. While that sounds nice and all, there’s a problem: the Eastern Conference is precarious. 

Outside of the top few seeds, the East has been a scattered combination of frequent playoff participants struggling and a handful of rebuilding teams turning a corner, like the Knicks. The NBA trade deadline also hurt the Knicks considering what those around them executed. 

The Chicago Bulls acquired star center Nikola Vucevic from the Orlando Magic. Meanwhile, the Magic sent wing Evan Fournier to the Boston Celtics, and the Miami Heat acquired star combo guard Victor Oladipo from the Houston Rockets. The Atlanta Hawks recently won eight games in a row. 

The conference is beefing up, veteran teams are getting hot and the Knicks could take the brunt of those developments with a bad week. Just six games separate the four-seeded Knicks from the 11-seeded Toronto Raptors. 

Playing .500 basketball, which they’ve been doing this season, gets the Knicks to at least a play-in series. If they want to avoid the play-in (being no worse than the sixth seed), they have no margin for error. 

Randle has to continue leading the scoring charge, but he needs help. That comes from RJ Barrett continuing to attack the rack late in games, Quickley playing with aggression and the three ball falling. When Randle and/or Barrett are double-teamed, the open man has to be able to stick the outside look. 

The Knicks’ identity can’t change. They have to be the aggressor defensively and unfazed by the competition. Run the offense and don’t cave to different defensive looks. Changing what got them this far is what allows teams to feast on their vulnerabilities. 

The 2020-21 NBA season has produced too many statement wins, comebacks and growth for the Knicks to not make it to a best-of-seven series. Getting to the playoffs is what allows this team to see what such competitive play looks and feels like.