Dennis Smith Jr., Mitchell Robinson
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

The New York Knicks are gaining steady momentum after thrashing the overmatched Atlanta Hawks in Madison Square Garden.

Danny Small

NEW YORK, NY—After wins over the Atlanta Hawks and the Golden State Warriors, it’s safe to say the New York Knicks are not the worst team in the NBA. Both the Knicks and Hawks came into the game with the same record, but it looked like a varsity team playing against the JV squad on Tuesday.

Despite their mirror records, the scuffling Hawks present a near-perfect matchup for the resurgent Knickerbockers. On one hand, the Hawks couldn’t exploit the Knicks’ biggest weakness and on the other, New York’s greatest strength preys upon a major weakness of Atlanta.

It’s no secret that the Knicks have struggled to defend the three-point line this season. Wide-open shooters are a common sight during Knick losses, but luckily for the Garden crowd, the Hawks came into Tuesday’s game dead last in the NBA in three-point shooting. Trae Young and Vince Carter combined to shoot 11-for-20 from beyond the arc while the rest of the team shot 4-for-23.

If Atlanta doesn’t shoot the three with much proficiency, that must mean they are a rugged team focused on owning the paint, right? Wrong. In fact, Atlanta is one of the worst rebounding teams in the league. It’s no surprise that the Knicks—who happen to be the top offensive rebounding unit in the NBA—scooped up 13 offensive boards en route to 72 points in the paint.

Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce didn’t sugarcoat anything in his postgame comments. He mentioned “competitive spirit” a handful of times and the difference in energy levels between the two teams was anything but subtle.

“I think the biggest issue is more about keeping our spirit,” Pierce told reporters after the game. “You’re disappointed, you put up a great fight the other night, start to finish. I didn’t think there was any point in the game on Sunday where we weren’t competing. I thought there were a lot of stretches tonight where we weren’t competing.”

At long last—and under the direction of interim head coach Mike Miller—the Knicks are starting to find a rhythm and build some confidence. Pierce spoke highly of Miller’s Knicks.

“You get in a rhythm, there’s not a player in this league that can’t make shots,” Pierce said. “If you’re struggling defensively or offensively, there’s a ripple effect. If you feel good about yourself, like they did tonight, guys start making shots.

“Dennis Smith hadn’t been playing. Kevin Knox hadn’t been playing. It’s probably the best game Kevin Knox played. He gets in a rhythm and he sees it go down and suddenly they all go down. We’ve seen that with other guys. It’s what you want and when you have that spirit good things happen.”

Under Miller, the Knicks are 3-3 with wins over the Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings, and the previously mentioned Hawks. The win over Atlanta represents the most complete performance of the three.

The offense exploded for a season-high 143 with six players reaching double figures in scoring. RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson notched career-high scoring nights with 27 and 22, respectively. The aforementioned Knox finished with 17 points while showcasing some newfound aggression. The offense was humming and everyone was eating. Playing against the league’s 27th-ranked defense certainly helped the cause.

It’s hard to find fault with anything Miller has done so far. The Knicks are winners of three of six with Miller at the helm and of the trio of losses, only the Portland loss was a real stinker.

“I think we have to bring the urgency every night,” Miller said in his postgame press conference. “When we have to establish this is how we play and this is our identity then we can look at other things. Right now, we just have to bring that every night. Bring that enthusiasm. Guys are having fun playing and that makes things flow together a lot easier.”

This certainly looks and feels a lot more like the gritty and hard-nosed team the front office sold to fans. Miller mentioned “identity” in his postgame comments and Bobby Portis expanded on that idea.

“Tough, gritty guys that go out there and give it our all… that dog, that passion early on in the season,” an upbeat Portis told reporters. “I think we’ve been playing with a ton of passion, a ton of confidence lately.”

Tuesday was yet another step forward for a team that spent the better part of the last two seasons walking backward. Based upon the last two-plus seasons, there’s always a need for some healthy skepticism when evaluating the Knicks. In the expanse of an 82-game season, it’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Is this another short burst of success before a lengthy losing streak or is this forward progress sustainable? The answer is still unclear.

In a vacuum, this win is a perfect showing for the Knicks. But they don’t play these games inside of a Hoover. They play in Miami on Friday. And then they have 53 more games after that.

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