It is tough not to ponder what might have been while watching Donovan Mitchell on League Pass and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ box scores.
Mitchell is that competent. With an average of 29.2 points per game, a shooting percentage of 50.2, and a 3-point percentage of 43 percent, he has elevated the 18-11 Cavaliers to the top of the second tier of teams in the Eastern Conference, behind Boston and Milwaukee, ahead of the Sixers and Nets. He was a potential Knick. Desired to become a Knick.
It is not a Knick. Occasionally, this still stings.
Nonetheless, a peculiar occurrence has occurred to the Knicks over the past few weeks, notably during their current five-game winning streak, which has, for the time being, reorganized and restructured many of the storylines surrounding the team. They are playing much more aggressively than a month ago. On defense, they are a totally different team.
And most surprising and pleasing?
It appears they may have the makings of a backcourt that can not only generate noise and excitement as only great backcourts can, but also allow the Knicks to reevaluate their position in the Eastern Conference standings.
Brunson was always going to help in this aspect, and he has been all the Knicks anticipated he would be since Day 1 of his four-year, $104 million contract. In recent weeks, however, the emergence of Quentin Grimes as Brunson’s legitimate running partner has allowed the Knicks to look and feel more complete than they have in years.
They are not Bonnie and Clyde. They are not what Brunson/Mitchell or Brunson/Dejounte Murray would have been, at least for the time being.
But if you’re looking for a site to put seeds for a serious NBA club in 2022, the backcourt is a fantastic location.
Brunson says of Grimes, “He’s quite exceptional. He feels fantastic, looks great, and has been performing exceptionally well for us.”
Grimes says of Brunson, “When he passes me the ball, I must be prepared to take open shots.”
Wednesday’s 128-120 overtime victory against the Bulls at Chicago’s United Center was emblematic of the duo’s recent surge in effectiveness. Grimes made a few shots early, delayed for about two quarters, and then sank three huge 3-pointers in the stretch of the fourth quarter and in overtime, all while enduring a hard night guarding Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan.
Brunson? In 39 minutes and 24 seconds, he hardly scored 30 points and dished out seven assists, each of which was played on a barking foot. Brunson speaks and acts as though the concept of not playing if you can get out of bed is demeaning, despite the fact that NBA players with less talent than he does often take “maintenance days.” He would rather wear a sweatshirt from Temple or Saint Joseph’s than his Villanova T-shirt.
“I don’t want to give them the impression that ‘I’m healthy, but I’d like to take today off,'” he said after destroying the Bulls in front of his former teammates at Stevenson High, 33 miles north of Chicago, on Wednesday. If I can walk, I can play, and I must bring my equipment.
This mentality makes Brunson’s $104 million price tag a bargain and fills everyone else on the floor with comparable tenacity, none more so than his newest sidekick. Grimes and Brunson have started the last 12 games for the Knicks, who have a 7-5 record but are rapidly ascending. The Knicks are sixth in the East with a record of 15-13, but they trail No. 4 Brooklyn by by one game in the loss column.
Grimes is playing with the most confidence he has all year, and the band as a whole is playing with the most confidence they have all year.
“I feel that taking bullets is a normal part of my job,” he remarked, “but my confidence never waivers. Even if I am 0-for-30, I will still take the following ten shots.”
The Knicks have overcome their first crisis of the season and are playing their best basketball heading into Friday’s rematch with the Bulls at the United Center. A shorter rotation has produced more daring results. And a young, energetic backcourt has aided the team in recharging its batteries. It has been a pleasure to observe. Better, it is enjoyable to observe.