It’s still November, but the Knicks have punched their ticket to the quarterfinals… of the NBA In-Season Tournament, that is.
After a 115-91 rout of the Charlotte Hornets Tuesday night, New York clinched the lone wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with a 3-1 record and plus-42 point differential.
Now, the Knicks are set to take on the No. 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks as they look to avenge their loss from the first game of the IST. To do that, New York will need a much more balanced scoring output than the first go-around. Jalen Brunson had a herculean effort, dropping 45 points on 17-of-30 shooting from the field. Unfortunately, he had little help from the supporting cast around him, as no one else scored more than 17 points.
On the defensive side of the ball, New York was able to keep former MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in check, holding him to 22 points, eight rebounds, and six assists. Considering Antetokounmpo is averaging over 30 points and 10 rebounds a game, the physical play of the Knicks’ defense and the different looks they can throw at the Bucks superstar proved to be effective the first time around. Another former MVP, Damian Lillard, proved to be the Achilles heel for New York, scoring 30 points, including going 12-for-12 from the charity stripe.
With the new scheduling implications now in place due to the IST, the Knicks will now face the Bucks five times this year, something head Tom Thibodeau is embracing.
“If they tell us we have to play this team five times, we’ll play them five times and be ready,” Thibodeau said. “If they say it’s eight times, it’s eight times. Whatever the schedule says, that’s what you have… sometimes it’s in your favor, sometimes it’s not.”
No matter how many times they square off against Milwaukee, the Knicks will need Mitchell Robinson to play a bigger role. Robinson snagged 15 rebounds but had zero points in the first matchup. While Robinson’s impact will be more felt on the defensive end and the glass, New York will need scoring threats at all levels to counter the explosive Bucks offense.
“His effort plays are special,” Thibodeau said. “His pick-and-roll defense is terrific, his rim protection is terrific… all the intangibles he brings to the team.”
The pick-and-roll defense will especially be paramount in the matchup with the Bucks as Lillard and Antetokounmpo rely heavily on the action in their offensive sets. Robinson will need to be a defensive stalwart in order to handle the dynamic nature of the Milwaukee offense.
For the Knicks to take the next step in the East and be serious contenders, they will have to beat the best. The IST only provides more of an opportunity for that and gives the roster with limited playoff experience a taste of the action in December. If they are able to take down the Bucks on their own floor, New York will punch their ticket to Las Vegas for the semifinals and a matchup with either the Indiana Pacers or the Boston Celtics. While the Knicks have yet to play the Pacers this year, they are 0-2 against the Celtics.