Heading into Wednesday night’s Game 5 in Cleveland, the New York Knicks find themselves one game away from winning their first playoff series since the 2012-2013 season. However, this iteration of the team looks to be turning back the clock even further, playing the type of gritty and physical basketball that defined the Knicks teams of the early 1990s.
The Knicks teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s were consistently some of the best teams in the NBA. They won at least 43 games in 11 of 12 years from 1988 to 1999 and even came within one win of a championship in 1994, but they were never quite able to get over the top.
Without a championship to hang their hat on, those teams are now most remembered for being entertaining and physical.
The early 90s Knicks were led by some of the most recognizable faces in franchise history: Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, John Starks, Anthony Mason, and others. They played such a physical brand of basketball that a New York ad agency branded the team with the slogan “Tough town, tough team.”
There’s even a book called Blood in the Garden, about just how intimidating and physical these Knicks, coached by Pat Riley, were. In the book, author Chris Herring mentions that “Pat Riley was telling them to knock players down aggressively, he was showing them video footage of rams violently headbutting each other, and violent car crashes before games to really charge them up, to get them to play violently. And that was the messaging he gave.”
It was a style of basketball that was wholeheartedly embraced by New York fans.
Charles Oakley, a fan favorite whose high school coach made him play football to develop more physicality on the court, was one of the league’s toughest players. During the 1992-93 season, he had an NBA-high nine flagrant fouls, which was more than twice as many as the next-closest player, and more than fifteen teams had the entire year.
His teammate, Greg Anthony, mentioned that the Knicks played with a mentality that said, “Hey, we’re gonna win something tonight. We’re either gonna win the game, or win the fight.”
That mentality was born out of a decade of futility.
The Knicks of the 1980s were a mediocre basketball team. They won 50 games in 1980-81 but then were under .500 in five of the next seven seasons. “It got so bad that the players wouldn’t come to practice sometimes,” Herring mentions in his book. “It was just kind of a miserable experience for most of the players, most of the coaches during that time.”
However, even that poor decade in Knicks history still led to four playoff appearances and two playoff series wins. The Knicks teams of the last decade have been unequivocally worse in many ways.
Since 2013, the Knicks have had just two seasons where they finished over .500. Before this season, they had one playoff appearance and no series wins. They’ve gone through seven different head coaches.
If the 1990s Knicks were a much-needed response to the failures of the 1980s then this current iteration of the Knicks is a reaction to the failures of the 2010s.
Both teams have found success by priding themselves on defense, physicality, and being a collective team rather than a star-driven lineup.
Yes, the Knicks had Patrick Ewing, who was one of the best players in the NBA, but the rest of their roster was a collection of complementary role players who had one or two elite skills and fit well together. Meanwhile, the Bulls had Michael Jordan and Scott Pippen. The Pistons had Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, and Dennis Rodman. The Jazz had John Stockon and Karl Malone.
However, those Knicks teams also had defense and rebounding.
In 1991-92, they ranked 2nd in the league in defensive rating and 3rd in rebounds per 100 possessions. In 1992-93 they were 1st in defensive rating and 1st in rebounds. In 1993-94 they were 1st in defense and 3rd in rebounds. In 1994-95 they were 1st in defense and 8th in rebounds.
They made sure that nothing came easy for their opponents. In many ways, this year’s Knicks team is exactly the same.
This version of the Knicks is 19th in defensive rating and 2nd in rebounds. However, if you just look at the marks since they acquired Josh Hart and became the exact team that is taking the court against the Cavaliers, the Knicks are 11th in defensive rating and 2nd in rebounding.
They also give up the 2nd-fewest points off of second chances and give up the 8th-fewest points in the paint. Much like the Knicks teams from the 90s, they are making their opponents earn every point.
We’re seeing that on full display in this first-round series, particularly in the two games at Madison Square Garden.
The 94 points per game the Knicks have allowed is the 2nd-best in the playoffs behind the 76ers who dominated the Nets. The Knicks are the only team this year to hold an opponent under 80 points when they limited the Cavaliers to 79 in Game 3.
The Knicks’ +5.7 rebounding differential is 2nd-most in the playoffs, and their +3.7 steals differential is the best. The 14.5 offensive rebounds per game they have averaged against Cleveland is also the most of any team in the playoffs this year, as is the 15.8 turnovers per game New York has forced.
After a sloppy Game 2 in which the Cavaliers shot 49.4% from the field and 42.4% from beyond the arc, the Knicks decided to buckle down.
Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein have defended the rim with tremendous length and physicality. Immanuel Quickley and Josh Hart are hounding ballhandlers on the perimeter, and even RJ Barrett has been more physical in holding his ground on drives. The team is rotating with quickness and proper angles, and they are in Cleveland’s face on almost every possession.
The intensity has put Cleveland on its heels and has New York as fired up and it’s been about a basketball team in almost two decades.
In the process, the Knicks have turned around the entire series and sent a message to the Eastern Conference.
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