Like it or not, the New York Knicks are pushing the Celtics for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Their ascension has occurred quickly, in coach Tom Thibodeau’s first season, with Julius Randle becoming an MVP candidate, second-year forward RJ Barrett making rapid improvement, and the team’s complementary players filling key roles and turning the Knicks into a tough out.
New York beat the Toronto Raptors on Saturday to extend its winning streak to nine games, the longest since a 13-game run late in the 2012-13 season.
It’s been a stunning development, especially considering there were mixed reviews when Knicks president Leon Rose hired Thibodeau for his third NBA coaching job after he was fired from the previous two. Thibodeau has been known for his old-school approach since his assistant days with the Celtics, and the perception was the game had passed him by, the younger generation tuning out his raspy voice that is constantly yelling commands.
But it’s been the perfect combination, the curmudgeon coach looking for redemption and a bunch of players looking for the same. Randle was the No. 7 overall pick in 2014 now on his third NBA team, having been erratic with the Lakers and better with the Pelicans but not enough to push the teams to the next level.
In New York, Randle has become a force, a fierce bull driving to the basket with a feathery shooting touch. Through Friday, he was averaging 23.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 6.1 assists on 41 percent 3-point shooting, a jump from 27.7 percent last season.
Randle was never considered a bust, but it’s taken six years to reach that All-Star potential.
“He has a great awareness of what goes on in the game and he gets people going. Julius can beat you in a lot of different ways,” Thibodeau said. “He can beat you with the pass, with his rebounding, going off the dribble.”
Thibodeau refuses to talk about anything besides the next game. He’s so focused on the now, not the Knicks’ first playoff appearance in eight years or success in a market that has been starved for a winner.
“The important thing for us is not to get lost,” he said. “You start thinking about down the road, playoffs, winning streaks, and you lose focus on getting ready for Atlanta. That’s where our focus has to be. It’s easy to get knocked off course, you can’t do that. You have to concentrate on everything and that’s what gives you an intensity.”
The Knicks are a balanced club, with castoffs such as Elfrid Payton, Reggie Bullock, and Alec Burks helping Randle and Barrett. They have taken on Thibodeau’s tireless work ethic.
“We have a team that’s trusting the pass, sharing the ball, they’re playing hard for each other and doing the same thing defensively, and that’s what it takes to be a successful team,” Thibodeau said. “I did think we would be able to become successful if we did the right things. I thought it was important for us to go step by step, be a great practice team first.”
Derrick Rose, who played for the Knicks in 2016-17, was acquired in February, and he said he noticed the change in culture. The Knicks aren’t chaotic (controversial owner James Dolan has stayed out of basketball business) and they are fun to watch.
“Of course we want the fourth spot, but we have to take it step by step, not to think ahead,” Rose said. “We have to be in the present. We’re giving all to the team. That was one of the reasons I wanted to be here, because they’re a young team and they’re hungry and they remind me of some of my good teams I played on when I was younger. I am just trying to fit in and see what this team needs and try to fill that void.
“I saw a winning mentality, where every team that plays against us knows it’s going to be a hard-fought game. When you see that from afar, of course I wanted to be a part of it.”
Said Randle: “Everyone on this team is all about winning. That’s all we care about. I take pride in being a leader on this team and being unselfish and making plays for other guys.”
Barrett, as the Celtics can attest, has dramatically improved as a shooter, making 38.6 percent of his 3-pointers compared with 32 percent last season. He has vastly improved, a byproduct of offseason work.
“I worked on it all summer,” he said. “Going to the gym days and nights. We really have a great, unselfish unit, and that really helps your mental strength more than anything.”
The Celtics are going to have to play well down the stretch to overtake the Knicks for the fourth seed, and it may come down to the May 16 season finale. More meaningful games at MSG is better for the NBA.
Nesmith makes improving his business
It’s been an interesting rookie season for Aaron Nesmith. The Celtics’ first first-round pick was expected to step in as an NBA-ready shooter to bolster the bench. Instead, he has played in spurts, showing signs of being more comfortable as the season has progressed but sitting for long stretches or filling in as a defensive helper/energy player.
The unevenness of the season hasn’t shaken Nesmith’s confidence or outlook. And the former Vanderbilt standout is marketable enough to sign his first shoe deal with New Balance, which has offices next to the Celtics’ practice facility in Brighton.
Nesmith has tried to mix working to improve his game while trying to delve into off-court business endeavors, such as shoe endorsements.
“It’s been a lot of fun being able to expand my roots and the things I’ve never really dove into so much with all the free time that I have,” he said. “I was a business major, so being able to do more business and learn some skills I wasn’t able to learn in the classroom has also been really fun. This walk of life outside of basketball has just brought on opportunity after opportunity, so it’s been a lot of fun.”
NBA players have been mostly limited to their homes and the practice facility during the pandemic, which could be challenging for younger players, such as the 21-year-old Nesmith. He has occupied his time with visits from his parents, who live in South Carolina, or his New York-based brother.
“It’s been a whirlwind, just being thrown into the NBA lifestyle without much time to really get my feet wet,” he said. “It’s been an experience, to say the least. I think I’ve got the hang of it, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think it’s been a lot of fun. I think it’s helped me in a lot of ways. It’s taught me things that other people didn’t get an opportunity to learn so quickly.”
Inasmuch as Nesmith said he enjoyed his experience at Vanderbilt, constant classes and studying weren’t his favorite activities, so he relishes the freedom of choosing how to spend his time.
“The best part is no school work, no class,” he said. “I’ll be at the gym for hours. When I come home, I’ll relax. Because of COVID I don’t really do much, don’t really leave my place. I go to the gym and go home. It’s my dream lifestyle.”
While the Celtics are considered a younger team, many of their veterans players, such as Jayson Tatum and Tristan Thompson, have families. Even third-year center Robert Williams is a father, making off-court team bonding difficult.
Nesmith has meshed with some of the team’s less-experienced players, such as Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford, and Tremont Waters.
“It’s a little bit different than college,” Nesmith said. “In the NBA, people are older, they have families, they have kids that they go home to. Not as many people go out and hang or grab lunch after practice, but a lot of the young guys do. I’ve definitely made some friends. It’s a family feeling.”
Nesmith said New Balance allowed him to work on creating his own logo on his athletic apparel. NBA players have become more astute at personal marketing, and Nesmith has relished the opportunity to create his brand.
“Drawing on a piece of paper showing them my idea and they came back with 50 ideas and they all were awesome,” he said. “I’m not a shoe collector, but I do have a high appreciation of shoes. I’m not going to get them and sit them in my closet. I’m going to wear them.”
Nesmith struggled mightily early in the season, but he has made an impact in his minutes of late, draining two 3-pointers and taking an important charge in Thursday’s win against the Suns. Nesmith is like many NBA rookies, just trying to improve and hoping the game slows down. Payton Pritchard, Nesmith’s rookie counterpart, etched a role immediately in training camp and is an All-Rookie team candidate.
Nesmith is still waiting for consistent minutes, hoping to impact his short stints.
“Just trying to do anything I could to help make plays,” he said. “We have a talented team here, so things that I used to do and responsibilities that I used to carry aren’t necessary things, so I have to do different things in order to help my team win and to help myself grow as a player.”
WNBA gets boost from McDonald, Kuier
Two of the more intriguing draft picks in the WNBA could take the league to the next level because of their skills and popularity. The first is Aari McDonald, who led the Arizona Wildcats to the national championship game. The point guard can score in a variety of crafty ways and is an elite defender.
The Atlanta Dream took McDonald with the third overall pick. McDonald captivated the college basketball world in the NCAA Tournament, as Arizona made an improbable first-time run to the Final Four as a third seed.
McDonald was a known entity on the West Coast as the two-time Pac-12 defensive player of the year, but it wasn’t until she touched the national stage that her draft stock soared. Arizona nearly won the title game, but she missed the potential winning shot in the final seconds.
“It’s been a lot going on, but I mean, through it all I never got too high, never got too low,” she said. “Even after losing the NCAA Tournament, I was never too low. I always took the positives from my situation. And this whole journey to get to the WNBA, I’ve been happy and just feeling blessed and just excited to play.”
A point of contention is McDonald’s first name and the constant mispronunciation. It’s pronounced air-ee, but she has heard several variations over the years. She hopes that the tournament performance and the national spotlight will clear up any confusion.
“It’s very tiring. They should know my name by now,” she said. “If not, I’ll just keep doing my thing. Just taking them on notice. I let my game speak for my name, obviously. But it’s very tiring.”
A potentially pivotal moment in women’s basketball occurred when Oregon’s Sedona Prince posted a video of the meager weight room facilities for the women’s players at the NCAA Tournament bubble in San Antonio. The facilities paled in comparison with their male counterparts in Indianapolis.
The NCAA apologized and immediately upgraded the weight rooms, but it was an example of the perception of women’s basketball. McDonald wants to change that.
“I think the women’s game is disrespected and I think people need to open their eyes,” she said. “We’re talented women. There’s something bigger than basketball. They stand up for stuff that they’re very passionate about, and that’s great. I think that people need to follow them and just keep opening their eyes. It’s bigger than basketball, but definitely people need to just take notice of the league.”
Second on our profile list could soon become one of the league’s sensations at age 19.
Awak Kuier, who is 6 feet 4 inches tall, has never played college basketball. She’s of Sudanese decent, grew up in Finland, and was selected second by the Dallas Wings, who had three of the top five picks. Kuier could pair with 6-5 Charli Collier, the Wings’ top pick, to make a dynamic duo.
“For sure I would say [I compare to] Candace Parker because she’s very versatile,” said Kuier, “but in the men’s NBA, I would say [Kevin Durant] is like the player I really like. He’s very versatile, and I feel like that’s the type of player I want to be like.”
The WNBA has expanded its scope on international players, and Kuier could potentially be the best. She is the first Finnish player ever drafted.
“For sure. In Finland there hasn’t been anyone, first of all, drafted so high and ever play in the WNBA,” she said. “So for me to be the first one is really like amazing. I’m really happy for it.
“Like just having a lot of young players being like inspired by me is something that keeps me motivated, and it’s like something very close to my heart. So, I’m really happy. For sure I would say, to be a role model for all those kids back in Finland is a really big responsibility, but I still take it as a positive thing, so it’s just going to drive me more to like work harder and get better.”
Austin Rivers was briefly unemployed after being waived by the Thunder following his trade from the Knicks. He signed a 10-day contract with the Nuggets, his sixth team in nine seasons. Rivers, the 28-year-old son of former Celtics coach Doc Rivers, seemingly found a home with the Rockets, but he was a free agent after last season and signed a three-year, $9 million deal with the Knicks with the final two years nonguaranteed. He barely touched the floor for Tom Thibodeau and then was traded. Rivers has never been able to fulfill the potential when he was a top college prospect and Duke signee, but he’s good enough to stay on an NBA roster. An injury to Jamal Murray has created a potential role for Rivers, so he’s not only playing for this season, but for his NBA future . . . There remains some intriguing free agents on the market waiting to sign 10-day contracts, such as Thon Maker, Patrick McCaw, Darius Miller, and Jeremy Lin. There has been such a rash of injuries in the NBA that there has been a demand on these fringe players to add to rosters . . . With injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis sidelining them for more than a month, the Lakers have no chance to claim the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Their target is the fourth seed and home-court advantage, where their likely first-round opponent would be the Nuggets. Davis returned to action Thursday and James is expected to return in the next week or so. The road back to the Finals could be difficult for the Lakers. A healthy Lakers team would likely be considered the favorite in any series, but how long will it take to integrate Davis and James? It will be interesting to see how well the Lakers can mesh in the final three weeks of the regular season.