In the 1990s and early 2000s, Blink-182 was huge. With songs like “What’s My Age Again?” and “All the Small Things,” the rock trio’s blend of pop punk and unapologetic juvenility propelled them to an influential stature in American culture, with a loud, dedicated fan base.
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Then, in 2005, the band disappeared for a while, returning in 2011 with its first album since 2003. It was a flop; internal acrimony hurt the recording process. Next came “California,” in 2016, an album met with low expectations because of the past acrimony and the likelihood that this band, like many before, would struggle to regain its mojo after so many years away.
Except the album turned out to be great, a success that fired up the fan base. The music felt fresh while still offering enough of what made the band so popular in the first place.
If that sounds familiar, and not just because you learned to play the guitar riff in “Dammit,” you just might be a Knicks fan watching the team make a serious run this year for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The Knicks are Blink-182.
They are 19-18, a half-game behind the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. And fans are optimistic. “Yelling outside Madison Square Garden” optimistic. “Spending a bunch of money on coronavirus tests just to attend a game” optimistic. It seems like ages since the Knicks have had this much excitement. Except we must now remind you that the Knicks were 18-18 not so long ago, in the 2017-18 season, and then the wheels fell off.
That can happen this season, too. But the feeling around these Knicks is different.
“As a team, we all really support each other,” said RJ Barrett, the team’s starting guard. “Always happy for each other. Whoever’s night it is, we’re always cheering. We really like each other off the court.”
So midway through the season, is this team for real? Enough to make the playoffs? Or will this season go the way of 2017-18, when they won only about a quarter of their games after the All-Star break?
Here’s a look at what to expect from the Knicks in the second half of the season.
A Tougher Schedule
The Knicks have had one of the easiest schedules. They are last in strength of schedule, a measure of the difficulty of a team’s opponents, but the second half stands to be harder. Coming out of the All-Star break, three of the Knicks’ next four games will be against finals contenders: the Nets, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers. When only a handful of games are separating the fourth seed from the 11th seed, those games are crucial. There’s also a brutal road trip in May that will take the team to Denver, Phoenix and Los Angeles, where they will play the Lakers and the Clippers.
That’s a heavy load that Randle has to carry night in and night out. He’s also top-three in the league in minutes played. Randle is only 26, but you have to wonder if fatigue will become a factor in the second half.
RJ Barrett’s Stephen Curry Impersonation
RJ Barrett is undoubtedly having a better year than he did his rookie season, but it has still been a strange one. In December, he shot a terrible 12.5 percent from 3, including an 0-for-8 performance against the Toronto Raptors. The next month, Barrett raised his percentage to a passable 35.1 percent. In February, though, Barrett turned into an elite shooter at 47.4 percent from outside. Oddly, it’s inside where Barrett struggles the most, sometimes forcing midrange shots.
He doesn’t take many 3-pointers — only 3.3 a game — but if Barrett remains a legitimate weapon out there, it will help the Knicks offense, which is below average.
Frank Ntilikina Is Coming in From the Cold
Frank Ntilikina, who the Knicks drafted eighth over all in 2017, hasn’t worked out as expected. His minutes have waned, and he hasn’t shown he can be a consistent scorer. But on Tuesday night, in his first start of the season, Ntilikina broke out for 13 points.
The performance inspired euphoria among Knicks fans. It spurred several memes and a donation to charity from overjoyed devotees on Reddit.
File this under “Possible Correlation, Not Causation”: Ntilikina has played in only nine games this season. In two of them, he entered in garbage time when the Knicks were well on the way to losing. But in the other seven, all of which Ntilikina played at least 11 minutes, the Knicks are 6-1. This includes the game on Thursday night against the Detroit Pistons, when he scored 9 points in 13 minutes.
It’s a limited sample size, but Ntilikina might be earning himself more playing time in the second half of the season. He’s hitting his shots (61.9 percent from 3) and has always been a tough defender. He even had a game-sealing steal against the Indiana Pacers at the end of February.
DE-FENSE! [Clap, Clap] DE-FENSE!
The Knicks are the second-best defensive team in the league, which isn’t surprising, because Coach Tom Thibodeau has long been known as a defensive wizard. The last time the Knicks had a top-five defense was in the 2011-12 season. Incidentally, the team made the playoffs that year in another shortened season.
To give you an idea of how much more offensive-minded the N.B.A. is today: In 2015-16, the Knicks had a better defensive efficiency than they do this year, but they were just the league’s 18th-best defense. It’s not a question of teams simply playing faster and scoring more points either, since efficiency factors in pace. Offenses are just better now, especially with the focus on the 3.
Can Immanuel Quickley Start? Please?
The Knicks often struggle offensively, yet one of their best offensive players doesn’t get much playing time.
An early victory of the Leon Rose-era Knicks is the play of Immanuel Quickley, who was selected 25th in the draft last year. He is having an impressive rookie season, averaging 12.2 points, while shooting 38.1 percent from 3. His floaters are a thing of beauty. He’s one of the few players on the Knicks, outside of Randle, Barrett and Derrick Rose, who can break down a defense. On top of that, he is automatic from the free-throw line, shooting better than 94 percent.
Quickley plays less than 20 minutes a game, and it’s high time for that to be increased for a team as offensively challenged as the Knicks. He’s also an active defender and a strong communicator. He’s undersized and is still learning, but he has a better defensive rating than Barrett and Mitchell Robinson — two players who have been lauded for their defense. (Defensive rating is a measure of how many points the team gives up with you on the floor, extrapolated for 100 possessions. It’s an imprecise measure, and is affected by who is also on the floor with you.)
Elfrid Payton has been the starting point guard for most of the year. But his poor shooting causes spacing issues, particularly for Randle. Quickley is arguably the team’s second-best offensive player. It’s worth giving him more time.