National Basketball Association
The Knicks’ incredible run is over, but the future is bright: ‘This team is special’
National Basketball Association

The Knicks’ incredible run is over, but the future is bright: ‘This team is special’

Updated May. 19, 2024 11:10 p.m. ET

NEW YORK — It's hard to say which injury did them in. Maybe it was Jalen Brunson's sore foot. Or OG Anunoby's pulled hamstring. Or Josh Hart's abdominal strain. Maybe it was Mitchell Robinson's twisted ankle. It wasn't Bojan Bogdanović's wrist issue, but that certainly didn't help matters. Neither did Julius Randle going down in January with a dislocated shoulder, though maybe the New York Knicks could have survived all those blows if Brunson hadn't also fractured his wrist in the third quarter of Game 7.  

"Hit after hit," as head coach Tom Thibodeau described it. 

And yet, they'd hung in longer than expected and won more games than anyone thought they could or would. There were the 50 regular-season wins (the franchise's first time reaching that mark since 2013), the No. 2 seed in the conference, the knocking off the favored Philadelphia 76ers in the first round, the jumping to a 2-0 lead in the East semifinals, getting to within one win of the conference finals, a place they haven't reached since 2000. 


At some point over the last week, though, these Knicks hit a wall. The relentlessness with which they'd played all year disappeared. They became sloppy and slow, and they had no answers for the Indiana Pacers' explosive offense. And so on Sunday, despite playing in front of a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd primed for its first Game 7 since 1995, the Knicks' improbable, incredible, inspiring season came to an end.

It was a blowout, too: a 130-109 defeat in which the Knicks allowed the Pacers to shoot 67.1% from the field, the greatest shooting performance in playoff history. Tyrese Haliburton controlled the game from start to finish (26 points on 10-for-17 shooting, six assists). T.J. McConnell (12 points, seven assists, +21 in 24 minutes) lived in the paint and wreaked havoc on defense. Aron Nesmith drilled all eight of his shots, Andrew Nembhard had 20 points of his own on a ridiculous 8-for-10 shooting.

The Knicks trimmed the deficit to single digits a few times, but each one of their runs was met by a Pacers onslaught. The absence of OG Anunoby, who tried playing on his balky hamstring but was moving as if stuck in quicksand and lasted just four minutes and forty-one seconds before being pulled, left them thin, and Brunson leaving the game was just too much to overcome. In the fourth quarter of Sunday's action, with their season on the line, the Knicks rolled out a lineup featuring Alec Burks, Precious Achiuwa and Miles "Deuce" McBride. All three are nice players with valuable skills, and Burks' 26 points off the bench kept the Knicks in the game. But that is not a trio that you expect to see on the floor in crunch time of a Game 7.  

And yet, as the final buzzer sounded, signaling the season's end, the Knicks walked off the floor to a standing ovation. Even the never-satisfied Thibodeau said he was at peace. 

"I'm disappointed in the sense that we're not playing anymore, but I thought they were a great group to be around, and they gave everything they had," he said after the game. He referenced all the injuries the team sustained. "The only thing you can ask for is everyone puts forth their best effort and we got that all year," he added, "And what goes along with that is peace of mind, knowing you did your best." 

The fan base clearly agreed. This was a team that became beloved, and that Knicks fans, reinvigorated after years of watching mostly trash, will talk about for years. Twenty years from now, it will be Brunson and Hart and Donte DiVincenzo who are brought back for playoff games the way John Starks and Larry Johnson were during this run. 

But this also marks the end of the honeymoon phase. With success comes expectations, and with expectations comes stakes, and with stakes come choices, and the Knicks — and their players — have some big ones to make over the next few months. 

Anunoby has a $19.9 million player option he will likely decline, which will make him an unrestricted free agent. Thibodeau is entering the final year of his contract and will likely want an extension.  Isaiah Hartenstein is an unrestricted free agent. Brunson and Randle are both extension-eligible.  

The first two are the easier calls. It'd be a shock if Thibodeau doesn't receive an extension soon. He's taken the Knicks to the playoffs in three out of his four seasons in New York and is beloved by his players. 

"Thibs is the reason why we have that mindset, the reason why night in and night out we fight to the best of our abilities," Brunson said Sunday night.

Anunoby, meanwhile, proved to be the perfect fit for this Knicks team. They went 26-5 in games (regular season and playoff) when he played. He is injury prone and, because there will be other suitors for his services (the Sixers, for example), it will take a mega contract to keep him. But it's widely assumed he and the Knicks had that figured out when the Knicks acquired him in December. It helps that he's represented by CAA, an agency with deep ties to the Knicks and where Knicks president Leon Rose previously worked and where son currently does.

(Asked about his contract after the game, Anunoby replied, "I haven't thought about any of that.")

Hartenstein's future in New York is less certain. He was great all season, or at least until the end of the Pacers' series, and his ability to protect the rim, crash the glass, facilitate an offense from the elbows and rain down floaters make him a valuable two-way center who will have options in free agency (keep an eye on the Oklahoma City Thunder). The Knicks also already have Robinson under contract, and it's fair to wonder whether carrying two centers on large deals is a smart way to allocate cap space in 2024. But Hartenstein was also essential to everything they did this season. The maximum New York can offer him is four years, $72.5. Are they willing to go that high?

The answer might depend on what Brunson elects to do. He's not going anywhere; the question is how he plans on balancing the ability to maximize his earning potential and for the Knicks to maximize their cap space. In July, he'll be eligible to sign a four-year, $156.5 million extension. He could also wait until the 2025 offseason and sign a five-year, $270 million extension then. Which means that the Knicks have a small window here to cash in all those assets they've collected over the past few years for a star. 

The good news for Knicks fans is that these are all good problems. This is no longer a team clawing its way out of the gutter but rather one trying to make the leap from good to great. And it's now led by a front office with a proven track record. This is the group that signed Brunson and Hartenstein and DiVincenzo, and traded for Hart and Anunoby, and drafted Immanuel Quickley late in the first round and McBride in the second, and hired Thibodeau. 

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And this is a team that, in Brunson, has a bona fide star, the sort of 1A (hat tip to Becky Hammon) that a franchise can build around. Who, as Thibodeau described after the game "always wants to do better."

"And that's what I love about him," Thibodeau added. "I love this mentality. And I think it permeates the team."

The season might have ended in a loss, but for the Knicks, this was far from a lost season. "This team is special in a way that I can't really explain," Brunson said. It will be remembered for that, yes, but also, quite possibly, as the one that kickstarted the Knicks' first legitimate contention window in more than twenty years. 

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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