Every now and again it is perfectly delightful to play a game like this, to welcome a team like these Sacramento Kings into your house, for in many ways they are like the perfect Homecoming Game foe. They are fun to watch, with plenty of dazzling fill-it-up young stars.
And they can’t guard a stop sign.
This is how a team that will never be confused for Paul Westhead’s old Loyola Marymount teams can score 140 points in a single basketball game, as the Knicks did before a satisfied gathering of just under 2,000 fans at Madison Square Garden Thursday night.
There were times when Tom Thibodeau, the defense-whisperer coach, looked like he might black out watching the Knicks surrender 121, but only coaches really mind games like this. As long as the home team finishes on the left side of the hyphen, the customers will be happy. And the Knicks, for a third time in the last 10 days, have crawled within one game of .500.
“We’re getting there,” Thibodeau said.
At 16-17, the Knicks are also slowly inching toward the season’s halfway mark, three games shy of 36, so we have officially reached the point where we can wonder, with data and information and 33 pieces of testimony, exactly what our recalibrated standard for this season ought to be.
Is it still OK to focus exclusively on process?
It is now OK to focus on the possibility of the playoffs?
“I’d say equally important,” Thibodeau had said about 90 minutes before the game. “I don’t want us to get lost and get too far ahead. I just want us to concentrate on what’s in front of us. I think you begin the season with [playoffs] in mind and all the things you have to do.
“You want to build those habits consistently. Practicing well is important, knowing your opponent well. If you start taking away from that and start looking too far down the road, that’s when you’re going to get clipped and fall.”
Fair enough. Still, the wins have made far more of a habit of winning than anyone thought realistic in Thibodeau’s first year. They were, remember, by virtual Vegas consensus assigned an Over/Under number of 22.5 wins. They are well ahead of that pace. They are, in fact, square in the middle of an Eastern Conference that, right now, seems divided into three different castes:
The clear-cut elite: the Sixers, the Nets and (despite some shoddy play recently) the Bucks.
Teams that have scuffled but logic and common sense insist will right themselves and make a comfortable push toward the top five: the Celtics and the Heat.
The scramble for slots 6 through 10.
And that’s where this Knicks season becomes awfully intriguing, because Friday morning they wake up tied with the Raptors for fifth place, engaged in a what will almost certainly be a seven-team rock fight for the final five playoff spots in the East. Right now the Knicks, Pacers, Raptors, Bulls, Hornets, Hawks and Magic are all within three losses of each other in the standings. Five of those seven will get in (assuming you don’t believe Washington’s recent turnaround is permanent; if you do it’s five of eight).
All of those teams have flaws and faults, much in the way the Knicks do. None of those teams has any reasonable chance of making any kind of noise in the playoffs, assuming things fall into place as they likely will in the second half. And so all will be asking themselves the same thing:
Process over playoffs?
Playoffs over process?
Both is ideal. But is both realistic?
“Just think about what goes into winning every day and building the right habits,” Thibodeau said before the game.
“We’re getting there,” he’d say after, twice.
Where to, ultimately? Saturday the Pacers come to the Garden, and suddenly there are plenty of intriguing things in play. Another crack at .500. A chance to beat a team in that crowded pile of pretenders and contenders waiting to be sifted to one side or another the next few months.
And, of course: working on the process, which means keeping eyes on the prize, which means not getting too far ahead of themselves. Still beats having thoughts of the playoffs existing only in fever dreams. Maybe they can coexist after all.