Surprising Knicks Ride Defense Into NBA Playoff Contention

Surprising Knicks Ride Defense Into NBA Playoff Contention

Even the most optimistic analyst couldn’t have envisioned a scenario in which the New York Knicks, winners of 21 games last season and bringing back much of the same core, were sitting near .500 and in playoff contention this late into the 2020-21 season.

And yet, led by Tom Thibodeau and thanks to the All-Star efforts from Julius Randle, the Knicks are relevant and appear destined for their first playoff berth since 2013.

And who knows? In an Eastern Conference that feels more wide open than any season in recent memory, New York’s feisty defense, ranked among the league’s best all season, could allow them to do some damage in the postseason. They currently have +8000 BetMGM Sportsbook NY odds to win the East and +25000 odds to win the 2021 NBA Finals at a few New York sportsbooks.

So while the 1970 and 1973 banners in Madison Square Garden likely won’t be joined by a third one this season, the fact that the Knicks are thinking playoffs and not lottery balls this late into the season is a success.

Julius Randle’s Ascension Has Mirrored Team’s

It’s impossible to win without a superstar in today’s NBA. Luckily, the Knicks have one. In his seventh NBA season, Julius Randle has taken his game to a new level, improving his efficiency, playmaking, defense and leadership, making him the first Knicks All-Star since Carmelo Anthony. Randle has five games this season with 30 or more points (the Knicks are 4-1 in those games), four triple-doubles (the Knicks are 3-1 in those games), and six games of 16 or more rebounds (the Knicks are 6-0 in those games).

The Knicks go as Randle goes and that’s huge in the postseason. Randle’s ascension will only help New York moving forward, but it also might bring him some hardware. In addition to being named an All-Star, Randle is the current favorite (-155) to win Most Improved Player at DraftKings NY. He began the season with +4000 odds.

How Far Can Defense Take New York Knicks?

It’s not always true that defense wins championships, but having an elite one makes the game easier — and New York has had a top-5 defense essentially the entire season. The Knicks play at the slowest pace in the NBA, around 97 possessions per game. They play ugly, grind out possessions and hope their opponent can’t do it as well as they can.

They’ll need to score in the postseason — all legitimate contenders can defend in the playoffs — but an elite defense will give New York a fighting chance against any opponent in the first round (or the play-in tournament).

The offense is certainly a question mark, having ranked in the bottom third of the league almost all season. Randle can only do so much, and sophomore R.J. Barrett and promising rookie Immanuel Quickley simply aren’t ready to be Nos. 2 and 3 scorers on a contender. The future is bright, but a 20-something offensive efficiency ranking is asking for trouble — and a short postseason stay.

Still, New York will be a tough out. It continues to tread water in an Eastern Conference that feels up for grabs if the Nets can’t stay healthy. The Knicks have wins over Milwaukee, Utah, Boston, Indiana and Portland. They’re capable of competing with the league’s best, and Thibodeau knows a thing or two about postseason play.



Mark Strotman is a veteran sports journalist who has covered the Chicago Bulls and the NBA for NBC Sports Chicago for about 8 years. His work has also appeared on,, The Chicago Tribune, Yahoo Sports and NBC Sports. He covered the NBA Playoffs in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017 as well as Team USA Basketball in 2014 and 2016. He has also covered high school football and was nominated for a Midwest Emmy in 2016 for his work on a documentary featuring local Chicago product and NFL prospect Miles Boykin.

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