Skip: You guys. You lollygag the ball around the infield. You lollygag your way down to first. You lollygag in and out of the dugout. You know what that makes you? Larry?
Skip: What’s our record, Larry?
Skip: Eight-and-16. How’d we ever win eight?
As far as team meetings go, Skip throwing the team’s bats into the shower along with his startled players is probably the gold standard, right? After all, in the movie “Bull Durham,” our heroes start playing some pretty fine ball not long after Skip’s tirade, egged on by Crash Davis. “Scare ’em,” Crash said. “They’re kids. Scare ’em.”
The Knicks chose a more dignified setting than the shower room Monday night, opting instead for a restaurant in downtown Salt Lake City. They also elected to keep middle-management out of the proceedings, so it was a players-only group intervention.
Now, this is technically unofficial, because Elias Sports Bureau doesn’t keep actual records of this. But I can say with some authority that teams freshly emerging from team meetings have a winning percentage of .917. The Knicks helped bolster that mark Tuesday night when they went straight from a three-course therapy session to a 118-111 win over the Jazz at Vivint Arena.
It was their finest win of the year, both in terms of quality of play and quality of opponent. And if sports history is any indication, the impact of that meeting has already reached its expiration date. Now, comes the hard part, and now the movie quote of choice switches to the final scene of “The Candidate,” after Robert Redford’s Bill McKay wins a California Senate seat and asks his campaign manager Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle):
“What do we do now?”
For the Knicks, the short answer to that question was a quick-turnaround game at Denver’s Ball Arena on Wednesday night for the business end of a back-to-back, and the second installment of a rugged five-game western road swing.
The larger answer comes across the next few months. They were notably more engaged Tuesday than they’d been in Sunday’s sound-the-alarms, 145-135 calamity at the Garden against Oklahoma City, and their effort and energy were substantially higher. That’s a start. And as RJ Barrett said of the Monday-dinner theme: “Just trying to hold each other accountable.”
If those words sound familiar as a rallying cry … well, they should. The Knicks’ 7-7 start this year has been treated in many circles — fans, media, NBA cognoscenti — as a hint of impending apocalypse, and indeed the Knicks remain at the beginning of a daunting seven-game stretch that could well determine exactly what this season can yield when they squeeze through to the other side.
But two years ago — what, in memory, feels like a feel-good, wire-to-wire 41-31 joyride of a season — was, in truth, an early-season mess, the Knicks sitting at various times at 5-8, 9-13 and 11-15. It was after a particularly discouraging blowout loss at home to the Clippers that Julius Randle — the architect of the Utah dinner — spoke in basic terms about the precipice upon which the Knicks sat.
“A lot of us still getting used to each other,” Randle said. “A lot of us still learning what we need to learn about [coach Tom Thibodeau] and his system. It’s basketball, man. Sometimes it takes time. Sometimes you need some room to grow, and be accountable, and be ready to play every night with confidence.”
As we know, all of that happened across that season’s final 46 games. We tend to think of that 2020-21 team as an outlier that was touched by stardust for a few months, but in truth it was a work-in-progress for 55 games, which was how long it took the Knicks to finally inch north of .500 for good.
There was no magic bean then, no miracle cure or mystical force. That team learned to play together, and the result earned Thibodeau a second trophy for NBA Coach of the Year. In that COVID-strapped year, Game 55 wasn’t until April. It can take a while. It surely did then.
Can this team follow that blueprint? For a game, anyway, they stopped lollygagging on defense. It was a start. What do they do now? The critical pages of the script are right there for them to write. The pen — and the ball — is in their hands.
Read More: Knicks may still need ‘room to grow’ to finally flip season