On the noisy and busy streets, there is suddenly an unmistakable rumble and it is becoming louder. Yes, the city game is announcing a resurgence in New York, where the Knicks and Nets are enjoying a collective and refreshing bounce back.
When has this happened before? Well, you might need a New York minute to figure that out because it’s rare when both teams have enjoyed a hot streak simultaneously. Much like the Bronx and Staten Island, history says one is up while the other is down.
But now, look: The Knicks have shaken off the lethargy of a .500-ish start that had fans suspecting the worst, while the Nets are finally free of drama and back in the business of seeing what wonders their stars can produce.
As a result, New York and Brooklyn are elevating together in the East standings and changing the conversation. The Knicks just had an eight-game winning streak snapped by the Toronto Raptors and it took 52 points from Pascal Siakam to do it. Meanwhile, the Nets are fresh off a 30-point beatdown of the Golden State Warriors and winners of seven straight. Both play Friday in the city, with the Bucks in Brooklyn for a pre-Christmas showdown (7:30 ET, NBA TV), while the Bulls visit Madison Square Garden (7:30 ET, League Pass).
In the decade since the Nets moved from New Jersey and officially doubled the number of city teams, the Knicks and Nets mostly stayed disconnected from each other. When the Knicks had a satisfying-but-brief run with Carmelo Anthony, the Nets were digging out from the rubble of the failed trade with the Celtics that sacrificed their future. When the Nets welcomed Kevin Durant and came within a foot-on-the-3-point line from the conference finals in 2021, the Knicks were changing the coach and front office yet again. In fact, they’ve had seven different coaches and five different GMs from 2010-20.
It’s all a faint memory, for now anyway, because these two teams are living in the moment. The Knicks are seeing the steady growth of a young team while the more-established Nets are flexing star power and inviting the possibility of being contenders once again.
Here’s a closer study of both teams, where they’ve been and where they’re going, and the players and circumstances that triggered the turnaround:
They’re 13-3 since Kyrie Irving returned from a team-imposed eight-game suspension and really, that’s the major reason for what you’re seeing now from Brooklyn. This team is built on shot-making from two of the most creative scorers in the world. When they’re sharing the court and causing problems for the defense, the result usually goes in Brooklyn’s favor.
“When we’re just clicking on all cylinders and the (bench) guys aren’t making shots but doing all the little things, it feels good,” Irving said. “The team morale is good.”
Irving remains a gifted player off the dribble and sometimes that’s lost in all the non-basketball controversy that swirls around him. Maybe he isn’t at the level he enjoyed while riding shotgun to LeBron James in Cleveland, and no doubt his teams haven’t done anything special since then. Still, he’s averaging 26.1 points per game and doing it efficiently (although his 33.7% on 3-pointers is his worst mark since shooting 32.1% in 2015-16). He still gets double-teamed and still gets the ball in the moment of truth and doesn’t shiver in those spots (his 31 clutch points ranks 40th this season after ranking 97th in clutch points last season).
Kevin Durant is the more impactful player and is performing at a Kia MVP level, averaging 29.4 ppg on 59.7% shooting this month, but the Nets are no threats with him going solo. That’s all a moot point, though, as this duo — finally — is together and focused on fulfilling all their promise. And what we’ve seen so far feeds the notion of the Nets as a top-four team in the East, right where they should be.
They are anxious to see what Ben Simmons can bring to the mix. He remains a riddle because he’s wildly inconsistent and, based on the evidence, will never be a third-scorer. But Irving and Durant are such skilled scorers that all the Nets need from Simmons is playmaking, rebounding and defense — elements that he can bring.
Meanwhile, the role players are growing comfortable and starting to produce with more regularity. Nic Claxton is executing better on pick-and-roll sets and ranks among the NBA’s leaders in contested shots at all levels. Royce O’Neale, Joe Harris, Seth Curry and Yuta Watanabe are the floor-spacers and have combined to shoot 43.3% on 3-pointers this season. The x-factor is TJ Warren, now two injury-filled years removed from his career moments in the bubble. The Nets are bringing him along slowly and, in spurts, he has been impressive.
Finally, Jacque Vaughn, after taking over for Steve Nash, has a good sense of what works for this team. For sure, the Nets haven’t noticeably suffered from the coaching change at all.
“When I first got this job, I said I was going to keep things extremely simple, and it was going to be about basketball,” Vaughn said.
Yes, all about basketball. The Nets are pretty good when that’s the case.
New York Knicks
They’ve only lost once since that game with the Mavericks who, coincidentally, were Jalen Brunson’s former team. And also coincidentally, by beating the Cavs, the Knicks at least temporarily quieted the noise about their failure to trade for Donovan Mitchell last summer, who has the Cavs one game out of first place in the East.
Brunson has checked all the boxes since signing in free agency — leadership, playmaking, shot-making. His stats (20.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 6.3 apg) put him in the conversation for the All-Star team and, right now anyway, the Knicks are rising. He’s exactly what the Knicks needed and what the Knicks thought they were getting.
“He has a strategy for everything,” said coach Tom Thibodeau. “He just gets out there and gets it done.”
He’s also indirectly made Julius Randle a better player. Last season, Randle handled the ball too much, and made too many mistakes with it (he was seventh in the NBA in turnovers) and therefore became buried under them. With Brunson around, Randle is more of a finisher and is now averaging more points (22.5) and fewer turnovers per game (2.7 this season vs. 3.4 in 2021-22).
“He’s sacrificing for the team,” Thibodeau said.
As for the Knicks’ failure to get Mitchell from Utah: The asking price of multiple picks and players, they figured, was too high, and it included RJ Barrett. The Knicks sensed their odds were better by staying put with Barrett, the role players and future No. 1 draft picks. The jury remains out regarding that — Mitchell is better than anyone on the roster — but let’s just say right now those complaints are fainter. Barrett is having a solid season (19.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.0 apg) and the Knicks have three players capable of scoring in the 20s on any given night.
They’re also an improved defensive team, which is required under Thibodeau, and therefore are giving themselves a chance most nights to win. On the eight-game win streak, the Knicks held five opponents under 100 points and a sixth, the Hornets, managed just 102. Since Dec. 1, the Knicks are No. 2 in defensive rating (103.3) and their overall defensive rating (110.8) is actually slightly behind last season’s mark (110.2).
“It’s a lot of fun,” Randle said. “Everybody’s in rhythm. There’s energy and it’s contagious.”
It gets better for the Knicks: Only three of their next 16 games are against teams currently over .500. It’s a golden chance for the Knicks to make their move and create a cushion once the schedule gets tougher.
They’ll also need to decide whether this is the rotation they’ll ride with for the remainder of the season, or if some action needs to be taken before the trade deadline. For example: Assuming Randle’s value never gets higher than this, should the Knicks search for buyers, or remain committed to him?
Anyway: Basketball is thriving in the city until further notice. Yes, there’s always the necessity to proceed with caution about the Knicks and Nets. The season is long and anything can happen, both good and not so good. It’s never smart to lock into a narrative, especially in December.
However, if this keeps up, then the next appropriate checkpoint will be about a month from now when the visibility will be even higher: Knicks at Nets, Jan. 28. The entire basketball city will take notice.
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