June 20, 2024

The preparation and ‘dialed in’ mentality that has turned the Knicks into the NBA’s best road team

What’s happening on and off the Garden court

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Isaiah Hartenstein and Josh Hart weren’t with the Knicks before this season, so the fact that the franchise has posted only one winning road record in the previous 25 years didn’t really register with two aptly named players who have been providing the team a heartbeat off the bench.

“Oh sh-t. Hopefully we can keep playing well on the road and make it two,” Hart joked after Tuesday’s home loss to the Hornets, his first defeat in 10 games with the Knicks since his arrival last month.

Indeed, the Knicks’ 20-12 road record this season is tied with the Celtics and the Bucks for the most wins and the best winning percentage (.625) in the league.

They’ve won five of six away from MSG since the start of February, including significant wins in Miami and Boston this past weekend. The double-overtime victory over the Celtics was their second OT win at TD Garden this season.

Immanuel Quickley #5 of the New York Knicks celebrates after the game against the Boston Celtics on March 5, 2023 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.
Immanuel Quickley celebrates his 39-point night against the Celtics on Sunday, which paced the Knicks to their second overtime win in Boston this season.
NBAE via Getty Images

The next four games, beginning Thursday night in Sacramento against the rising Kings, should present a stern test. Tom Thibodeau’s team also will play two games in Los Angeles on back-to-back days this weekend and visit Portland to face Hart’s former team, the Trail Blazers, on Tuesday.

“I think on the road, it’s just about the guys. I think that’s the biggest thing,” Hart told Sports+. “You don’t have as many distractions as there are at home, and I think on the road, that’s an advantage.

“I think we’ve shown we’re unselfish and play together, and that’s a big part of it. Obviously, we know any road game is always tough, so we’ve been locked in. and that’s probably the biggest thing.”

Following their loss to the 76ers on Feb. 10, the Knicks had the second-hardest remaining strength of schedule, according to Tankathon. Ten games and nine wins later, they enter this western trek with a remaining opponents’ winning percentage of .495, the 18th hardest in the league going into Wednesday night.

Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat posts up against Josh Hart #3 of the New York Knicks during the first half at Miami-Dade Arena on March 03, 2023 in Miami, Florida.
The Knicks have won nine of the 10 games during which Josh Hart has been on the roster, including four on the road.
Getty Images

Nine of their remaining 15 games will be on the road, with additional away games in Miami, Orlando, Cleveland, Indiana and New Orleans.

“I think in general we do a good job of being prepared, just coming in each game trying to be the more prepared team,” Hartenstein said. “I think so far we’ve got a good bond, everyone wants everyone to succeed. That goes a long way, especially when you’re in a tougher situation, on the road.

“We’ve had a lot of tough games, especially the two times in Boston when we had to fight it out together. Miami, the same thing. So I think pulling out those close games on the road against good teams are going to help us down the stretch, just from the point of being able to trust each other.

“There really aren’t many egos, just trying to win. Especially in a long season, those long road trips bring guys together. … I think Thibs has done a good job of making sure everyone is always focused and dialed in to what we have to do.”

That success also potentially bodes well if the Knicks fail to secure home-court advantage in the playoffs — in a potential 4-5 matchup with the Cavaliers, who lead the Knicks by 2.5 games, or fall to the No. 6 position.

Isaiah Hartenstein #55, Immanuel Quickley #5 and RJ Barrett #9 of the New York Knicks pose for a picture in the final seconds of their 122-101 win over the Atlanta Hawks during the fourth quarter at State Farm Arena on February 15, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia.
The Knicks have used their road trips this season to not only focus on basketball, but also on building chemistry.
Getty Images

“For sure,” said Hart, who has never appeared in a postseason game in six NBA seasons. “We want to make sure everything is an opportunity to learn and to grow, and obviously road games provide that. If at the end of the year we’re fortunate enough to be in the playoffs, I think those road wins only will help us.”

A few other Knicks felt the team’s success away from home revealed a little of what makes this particular group tick.

“[W]e have a lot of mentally tough guys, guys with a chip on their shoulder,” Immanuel Quickley said after the loss to Charlotte. “And then we have just great individual people. It takes character to win on the road, it takes toughness to win on the road. And I think we have that. So whether we’re up or down, we know how to handle that. And I think it shows when we’re on the road.”

Added RJ Barrett: “I think what makes us successful is when we go on the road, we don’t really change too much [in terms of our] preparation and stuff like that. Guys are really locked in, and we have a team of guys that come ready every day and put the work in and are really focused on basketball, trying to win these games.”

The last Knicks team — and the only one in the past quarter-century to post a winning record on the road — was Mike Woodson’s 54-win squad of 2012-13, which went 23-18 away from MSG. That ended a 15-year string of losing seasons on the road since the Knicks went 26-15 in 1996-97, the last of a six-year stretch in which they compiled a 142-104 (.577) road record.

Julius Randle #30 of the New York Knicks makes the game winning three point basket during the game against the Miami Heat on March 3, 2023 at Miami-Dade Arena in Miami, Florida.
With a roster of guys who have “a chip on their shoulder,” the Knicks have been able to grind their way to a 20-12 record on the road this season, including last week’s win in Miami.
NBAE via Getty Images

The franchise record for road wins (including neutral-site games) in one season was a 30-11 mark away from MSG during the Knicks’ 1969-70 championship season.

Tom Thibodeau’s balancing act

One leftover from my interview with former Knicks coach and longtime ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy last week was this thought on Thibodeau’s decision earlier this season to bench well-paid veterans Evan Fournier and Derrick Rose and the professional manner in which both handled the situation.

“I give those guys a ton of credit. Fournier really could have been a poison pill, but he hasn’t been. And he had that game when he went back in and hit seven 3s or whatever it was,” Van Gundy said, referring to Fournier’s 17-point effort with five 3-pointers in a win over the Sixers on Feb. 5.

New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau, left, puts guard Derrick Rose in after the fans called for him during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Though still a favorite of Tom Thibodeau, Derrick Rose has logged less than three minutes of game time since the calendar turned to 2023.
AP

“And I know Tom loves Derrick Rose, and going to nine men and taking him out of the rotation, I think, was obviously painful for Rose, but excruciating for Tom.

“But it also shows that he understands the burdens and responsibilities of being a head coach. And that’s making decisions in the best interest of the team. You’ve gotta put the team ahead of everything else. And that’s Tom.”

Can the Knicks blaze a new trail out west?

Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks drives to the basket against the Portland Trail Blazers on December 12, 2015 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon.
The Knicks needed 37 points from Carmelo Anthony to beat the Trail Blazers more than seven years ago in Portland, where New York hasn’t win since.
NBAE via Getty Images

The West Coast has been anything but a welcome getaway for the Knicks over the past two decades-plus. Just take a look at their records out there since the beginning of the 2001-02 season:

at Clippers: 4-16 (DNP in L.A. in ’11-12 due to lockout)
at Kings: 8-13
at Lakers: 6-15
at Sonics: 3-4 (franchise moved to Oklahoma City in 2008)
at Trail Blazers: 3-17
at Warriors: 5-16 (DNP in ’19-20 due to COVID)

Portland is the worst stopover of the bunch, and the Knicks have been especially woeful there in recent years.

In their past 10 visits to Rose City, the Knicks have won a grand total of…once.

On December 12, 2015, Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks with 37 points in a 112-110 victory.

It’s a heck of a box score to revisit — Arron Afflalo! Robin Lopez! Kyle O’Quinn!:

Boxscore of Knicks-Trail Blazers game from Dec. 2015.
New York Post

Since then, the Knicks have lost six straight in Portland by an average of 15 points.

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