Don't look now, but the New York Knicks are back in the playoffs.
Sure, they're only seven games into the 72-game season, but slow progress is still progress, and the Knicks are making it, evidenced by their recent stretch of victories.
After beginning the season 0-2, suffering a 14-point road loss to the Indiana Pacers (5-2) in their season-opener and a 20-point home loss to the Philadelphia 76ers (6-1) in their second game, the Knicks (4-3) have rebounded nicely, and sit fifth in the Eastern Conference standings – fifth! – as of Tuesday afternoon.
New York has won four of its last five games, and its first win of the season, back on Dec. 27, came in the form of a 130-110 drubbing of the Milwaukee Bucks (4-3), the franchise with the best record in the NBA in each of the past two seasons.
Two nights later, the Knicks traveled to Cleveland (4-3) and beat an upstart Cavaliers team, 95-86.
A 100-83 loss at Toronto on Dec. 29 would put an end to New York's growing win-streak, but on Jan. 2, the Knicks went to Indiana and avenged their early season loss, knocking off the Pacers, 106-102, before landing in Atlanta on Monday night and defeating the up-and-coming Hawks (4-3), 113-108.
And all of a sudden, there's renewed hope in The Big Apple.
Leading the way for the Knickerbockers has been the duo of semi-veteran forward Julius Randle – he's only 26 but this is his seventh year in the league! – and second-year shooting guard RJ Barrett, 20.
Randle is (so far) having the best season of his career, averaging career-highs in points (22.1), rebounds (11.4) and assists (7.4 – tied with LeBron James for seventh-most in the NBA).
Randle has posted a double-double in five consecutive games, and against the Cavaliers, he registered the seventh triple-double of his career, finishing the night with 28 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists.
On Monday, against the Hawks, Randle scored 28 points, grabbed 17 boards, and handed out nine assists.
In five of the Knicks' seven games this season, Randle has led New York in scoring, and in their other two games, Barrett has sat at the top of the scoring totem pole.
After a rough December showing – Barrett shot 34.6 percent from the field and 12.5 percent from three in five December outings – the second-year guard and former No. 3 pick has turned it around in consecutive games.
In the Knicks' win at Indiana on Jan. 2, Barrett posted 25 points and five rebounds while shooting 53.3 percent from the field, including 4-of-5 from three.
And on Monday at Atlanta, Barrett had arguably his best performance of the season, pouring in 26 points on 52.6 percent shooting, and adding 11 rebounds, five assists and two steals.
There's also a new coach in The Empire State.
During the offseason, the Knicks made the move to bring in legendary hard-worker Tom Thibodeau to right the ship in New York and guide the franchise to its first playoff berth and winning season since the 2012-13 season.
Thibodeau, throughout his career, has been much-maligned as a hard-nosed, get-in-your-face coach, one that has rubbed several past veteran stars the wrong way and been known to play his key players a lot – A LOT – of minutes.
With that, there were questions as to whether Thibs was the right fit for a team that currently has zero players 30 or older on its roster.
But according to Barrett, Thibodeau is getting the most out of him, Randle, and every player in the rotation.
And in classic Thibs fashion, his team is using defense to get the job done.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the Knicks are allowing 105.1 points per game, tied for fifth-fewest in the league. They are allowing opponents to shoot 43.3 percent from the field, good for third-best in the NBA, and New York's opponents are shooting a paltry 29.5 percent from three, the worst in the league.
In other words, it has yet to hurt New York that it is third in the league in turnovers per game (16.7) and 29th in points per game (103.3).
With what the Knicks have cooking so far, longtime Knicks fans Stephen A. Smith said on Tuesday that fans might be looking at two Eastern Conference contenders in New York.
"I'm very excited ... I know the Brooklyn Nets got all the talent ... but Julius Randle is playing like an All-Star ... The New York Knicks could end up winning about 36 games, being a .500 team, making it to the playoffs, and they'll be looking up. They've got an upside."
Clearly, so far, Thibs is pressing the right buttons with his group of youngsters, and given New York's early success, Knicks fans and followers are buzzing on Twitter:
New York has yet to play a Western Conference squad, but that will change this week, when the Knicks play host to the Utah Jazz on Wednesday, followed by home matchups against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets.
Don't let the NBA world down, New York – the league is better when the Knicks are good.