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How Should We Judge The Knicks Season?

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The Indiana Pacers threw a caution flag on the New York Knicks’ championship hopes.

New York’s Eastern Conference Semifinal series with the Indiana Pacers has become a best-of-three slugfest, as each team successfully defended its homecourt over the first four stanzas. Indiana, however, put forth a definitive statement win on Sunday afternoon at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, a 121-89 shellacking that wasn’t even as close as the already-lopsided score indicated.

“We have to really get back to playing our basketball, coming back to playing for the fans like that,” starting center Isaiah Hartenstein said, per Stefan Bondy of the New York Post. “The way we played, especially today, was not respectful to the fans and how they support us.”

Knicks fans (and their hockey counterparts by association) have eerily embraced comparison to the famed spring/summer of 1994, but the Pacers’ pounding is conjuring up poor memories of 2013, when a Manhattan group fully capable of challenging LeBron James’ polarizing “Heatles” was literally blocked from the conference finals by an Indiana team teaching itself how to win, a defeat it took over a decade to fully recover form. Images of Roy Hibbert’s infamous denial of Carmelo Anthony no doubt haunt Knicks’ fans current nightmares as they try to get some uneasy sleep before Game 5 on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, TNT).

May 12, 2024; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA;  New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) dribbles the

May 12, 2024; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) dribbles the / Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Facing a fateful three, mortality has descended upon the Knicks, an intimidating specter that threatens to extend the franchise’s conference final drought to a quarter-century and render nearly 100 games of progress null.

Hot take artists outright anticipating the drop of the other shoe no doubt have their vocal cords warmed up to shout the Knicks’ obituary, eager to deliver the punchline like it’s the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. Falling to an experienced Miami Heat group that fell to No. 8 last season? Understandable. Winning 50 games and dropping a 2-0 lead to an Indiana team learning on the go? That might linger in the land of inexcusable.

But think about why that punchline’s delayed.

Forty-eight minutes … and the ensuing 144, as the case may be … should not deny the Knicks’ vital progress and growth. The basketball gods apparently have hot takes of their own to unleash and have issued every challenge, every brand of silliness and curse that they can throw at the Knicks.

Three-time All-Star Julius Randle is gone for the year, as is fellow starter Mitchell Robinson (barring a potential Finals trips) and acquired depth star Bojan Bogdanovic. Leon Rose sacrificed a homegrown redemption story he couldn’t afford to keep co-authoring (RJ Barrett) and turned him into OG Anunoby, who was on pace to turn the Knicks into a 60-plus win before his own ailment.

That doesn’t even factor in all the other malarkey the Knicks have had to deal with, such as a fifth game against Boston for winning the In-Season Tournament wild card and getting no primary nominations for major individual hardware.

May 12, 2024; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA;  New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) holds the ball

May 12, 2024; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) holds the ball / Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Does that sound like a team that wins 50 games, a No. 2 seed, and six games in the NBA Playoffs? Certainly not, and that’s progress the Knicks could only dream of not too long ago. The best part about it is that it’s sustainable: Randle and Jalen Brunson … the latter become a formidable, undeniable franchise face who is placing himself in the same sentence as Michael Jordan with his postseason box scores … are signed up for the immediate future with Donte DiVincenzo and Josh Hart locked up for the long-term.

When men went down this season, it felt like someone else was right there to step up for them. Precious Achiuwa was an afterthought in the Anunoby trade, yet he made up for the loss of Robinson and others. Hart turned himself into a walking triple-double with Randle absent. When reserve leftovers needed to make up for Immanuel Quickley’s lost scoring, in came Miles McBride to expand beyond his defensive reputation.

Such progress and and rising made Sunday’s loss all the more unbearable and the Knicks are well aware. What’s even more heartbreaking is that they’re well-aware of the concept.

“We’re disappointed, and the thing is we can’t have a hangover, we have to fix it and we have to come with a will and a determination to respond to what happened,” Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said, per Brian Windhorst of ESPN. “This team has responded all year, so that’s what we’re expecting to do. We got to put the work into it and be ready to go.”

Leave it to the new-century Knicks to have grief stand a sign of progress. But losses are heartbreaking again rather than character-building like last year’s second-round defeat to an Eastern dynastic group like Miami was. Time will tell if the Knicks take advantage of that gift … but for now, this season makes them undeniable winners no matter what happens against Indiana.

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