New York Knicks Allonzo Trier Emmanuel Mudiay
(Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The New York Knicks are learning to win and better yet, they’re learning how to beat the best teams in the league.

Learning, development, growth. All the buzzwords for a rebuilding team are present in almost any conversation surrounding the New York Knicks. Wins were supposed to be scarce and anyone who was hoping for a tank was in luck. The Knicks were off to a listless start.

Save for two wins against the dreadful Atlanta Hawks, a victory over a clearly flawed Nets team, and a surprising win over the Dallas Mavericks, the Knicks were off to a concerning start. Of course, wins were supposed to be few and far between, but not this bad. The Knicks began the year 4-14 with a record of 1-10 against teams that are currently in a playoff spot (as of Dec. 5).

Obviously, it’s early so those playoff spots will continue to change. But it’s a quick way to contextualize the opponents the Knicks are facing and how they’re faring against the best of the best. At least early on, head coach David Fizdale’s squad was not faring very well.

Fizdale emphasizes competition and he’s made it clear that he’s not here to tank at all. He’s here to help his guys grow into a winning basketball team. It took some time before the Knicks started playing like a winning ballclub. But the Knicks are exercising their demons and finally beating the best of the best in the league.

The overall goal is to win in the playoffs and contend for championships. Surviving a seven-game series is what separates the men from the boys. The Knicks will have to wait at least another year before experiencing the playoffs, but they have to learn how to win in the regular season before they can learn how to win in the playoffs.

They have to learn how to crawl before they can walk.

Learning To Win

After starting the year with an appalling 1-10 record against current playoff teams, the Knicks are bucking that trend, to a certain degree, with a three-game winning streak over quality opponents. A frontrunning win over the Boston Celtics was like a scene from the Twilight Zone. The upstart Knicks held the big lead as the vaunted Celtics desperately tried to complete the comeback. Shockingly enough, the Knicks held their ground and stole a win in the other Garden.

The Knicks next two games were against the New Orleans Pelicans and the Memphis Grizzlies. The former was a playoff team last year and on the outside looking in right now, but don’t count them out yet. The latter is in the thick of the Western Conference playoff hunt and a much better team with Mike Conley back into the lineup.

Against the Pelicans, the Knicks played a different level of defense in the fourth quarter, holding New Orleans to 19 points. The Knicks outscored the Pels by eight in the frame and won by five. The trip to Memphis wasn’t much different. It featured a close game, but it was much more grit-and-grind, the style of play Memphis is famous for. That being said, the Knicks beat Memphis at their own game. A monster third quarter brought the Knicks back into the game and New York’s late-game execution was the difference.

These three wins were followed up with two clunkers against likely playoff teams—the Sixers and the Pistons. Rome wasn’t built in a day. But Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks were upended in one day—Saturday night, to be more specific. Down 14 with 6:54 left in the fourth quarter, the Knicks roared all the way back to send the game to overtime. It was another instance where the Knicks’ late-game execution outshined their seemingly superior foe.

Wizards Loss Still Provides Hope

Winning three of five against playoff teams was a modest accomplishment, only to be followed up by a loss to the dysfunctional Washington Wizards. After controlling the first half, an old demon reared its ugly head—the third quarter. The Knicks have struggled in third quarters long before Fizdale arrived. Any astute observer of the Knickerbockers has watched this movie before. The Knicks play well in the first half, receive a shellacking in the third quarter, and mount a late comeback that falls painfully short.

It was a caricature of the Knicks in some ways. But in other ways, it felt different. In the past, everyone knew the late comebacks would fall flat. This time around, the Knicks are starting to finish the job. It didn’t happen against Washington on Monday, but there’s that old adage about Rome again.

Fizdale is instilling a competitive fire in the Knicks this year. They’re starting to complete the comebacks (Milwaukee) and taking it one step further, they’re learning how to play as the team defending a big lead (Boston). It’s not easy and there are no quick fixes. But the Knicks are exhibiting positive signs.

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.