The New York Knicks had been cruising. They’d won nine straight games, including two over the Eastern Conference favorite Boston Celtics, and had gotten within a game of moving into fourth in the East. Everything seemed to be going their way until they ran into one of the most unlikely obstacles.
Just a win away from having the fourth-longest winning streak of the season, the Knicks were shocked at home in a 112-105 loss to a Hornets team that was 26 games under .500 coming into the game and had lost their best player, LaMelo Ball, for the season with a fractured right ankle.
There were plenty of reasons for the loss. The Knicks had just played two overtimes in a grueling win over the Celtics two days earlier. Jalen Brunson was out with a foot injury. Julius Randle and Immanuel Quickley both had poor shooting nights in the same game. The bounces were bound to not fall their way at some point.
The excuses were there if you look for them, but the Knicks were not looking for them after the game.
“It’s a reality,” said Josh Hart after the game about fatigue being a factor in the loss. “But the reality also is that our job is to play basketball. You got people getting up at 6 am doing 12-hour shifts. Those guys are tired. You know, for us, we’re playing a game, and, obviously, we’re fortunate enough to play a game like this, but we have to keep that in perspective. We gotta go out there and compete and play the game that we love to do and compete at the highest level.”
The Knicks certainly didn’t compete at their highest level on Tuesday.
The team looked sluggish for most of the game, and while RJ Barrett was able to keep New York in the game early on, he, Randle, and Quickley all seemed to lose steam as the game entered the fourth quarter. The three of them shot a combined 2-for-17 in the final frame as the Knicks saw a nine-point fourth quarter lead vanish in the final six minutes.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re full of energy and lively every time we step on the court,” Hart added. “We’ve just got to get back to playing winning basketball.”
It’s a sobering reflection from Hart, and while fatigue was likely a factor, the reality is that the grind of the NBA season is nothing new for these players.
However, the grind of the playoffs will be for many of them.
Josh Hart himself has never appeared in an NBA Playoff game. Neither have Mitchell Robinson and Quentin Grimes, and Isaiah Hartenstein has only played one total minute. They make up four of the nine players that Tom Thibodeau relies on each night.
The Knicks as a franchise have only made the playoffs once since 2012-13. The only remaining players from that team are Randle, Quickley, Robinson, RJ Barrett, Derrick Rose, and Obi Toppin. However, Rose is no longer in the rotation, Robinson was hurt during the playoffs in 2021-22, and both Quickley and Toppin played just 15 minutes a game or fewer.
That means that Jalen Brunson, Randle, and Barrett are the only players currently in the Knicks rotation who have any real playoff experience. The rest of the team will be learning on the fly. They’ll have to adjust to a near non-stop schedule of travel and games plus playing intense, grueling matchups in front of packed arenas.
During Brunson’s 18-game playoff run with Dallas last year, they played their 18 games within 34 days, with travel back and forth mixed in between contests. There are rarely true off days. Considering Brunson was playing almost 34 minutes a game with Luka Doncic nursing an injury, that can be a lot of strain to put on your body.
As a result, Brunson seemed to fade a bit in the Mavericks’ final playoff games, shooting just 8-of-22 combined in his final two games and posted a -24 plus/minus in his final game.
Managing that level of fatigue will be crucial for New York because they are so reliant on their starters. Since Josh Hart was traded to the Knicks and Robinson returned from injury, the rotation has four players who play over 33 minutes each game in Brunson, Randle, Robinson, and Barrett. Randle and Brunson each average over 36.9 minutes per game.
That is highly unlikely to change in the playoffs, which means the Knicks will ask for a lot of minutes from a small collection of players in every single playoff game. How they handle the strain that puts on their body or how Thibodeau manages the rotations to less that impact, will be crucial to the team’s postseason success.
While fatigue may have been an issue for the Knicks on Tuesday, it will be an issue they’ll need to contend with if they hope to make a deep playoff run this year. Adapting to it and overcoming it will be crucial for a team without tons of postseason experience.
“I don’t think it’s an excuse, just to blame it on that,” said Quickley when asked about fatigue after the game. “We just gotta play better. I gotta play better; I know that. But we’ll learn from it. I know I will.”
The Knicks players are saying all of the right things and certainly don’t seem like a team who relies on excuses, so if Tuesday’s loss truly becomes a learning experience then we might look back to a loss to a lowly Hornets team not as a low moment in the season but a vital lesson that allowed the Knicks to reach their full potential.
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