Here are the top 10 moments that defined the Knicks in 2021

·4 min read

For much of the world, 2021 was just as bad as 2020. Maybe worse. A year that started with so much hope became a series of letdowns tied to this stubborn pandemic.

And yet, for the Knicks, it was a shocking success. With a 56-46 record in 2021 heading into a New Year’s Eve showdown at OKC, the Knicks long ago secured their first winning record over a calendar year since 2012 — when Barack Obama was seeking re-election and Jeremy Lin was the biggest craze at MSG.

It was enjoyable to chronicle in its surprise in that nobody anticipated the Knicks could elevate so quickly after their disastrous 2020 (and 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, etc). But there was also the empty feeling of the playoff dud against the Hawks, and the uncertainty of this roster’s ability to build off such promise.

Here are 10 moments, chronologically listed, that defined 2021 for the Knicks:

JAN. 6: KNICKS SHOCK THE JAZZ IN THRILLER

The expectations of being lottery-bound didn’t change on this night, but the Knicks demonstrated the type of fight unseen in previous seasons. They beat the team in Utah that would ultimately own the league’s best record, and it was behind 14 consecutive points in the fourth quarter by Austin Rivers. It was the first time the following thought percolated: this Knicks squad may be different.

FEB. 8: KNICKS TRADE FOR DERRICK ROSE

It wasn’t a consensus popular move and carried concerns of not only Rose’s ability to be productive and healthy, but also of the veteran point guard eating up valuable playing time from rookie Immanuel Quickley. Ten months later, it was arguably this front office’s best move, especially since it only gave up a second-round pick to Detroit. Rose boosted the Knicks’ bench and became the team’s top player in the postseason. He re-signed in the summer for three years, $43 million, but underwent ankle surgery last week and is out for over a month.

FEB. 15: JULIUS RANDLE GOES OFF AGAINST THE HAWKS

It was the game we knew Randle would be an All-Star. He went off for 44 points on seven 3-pointers, giving the Knicks a third straight victory. Three weeks later, Randle returned to Atlanta to represent Team Durant in his first career All-Star appearance.

APRIL: NINE-GAME WINNING STREAK

The Knicks went from a path to the play-in game to looking like a real threat to win a round. They beat the Lakers, Hawks, Grizzlies and Mavericks for their longest winning streak since 2013, with Randle severely outplaying Kristaps Porzingis in Dallas. Overall, the Knicks won 16 of their last 20 games to secure the fourth seed and homecourt advantage in the opening round against the Hawks.

JUNE 2: TRAE YOUNG’S BROADWAY BOW

While Randle and RJ Barrett were utter disappointments in the series, Atlanta’s Young emerged as a superstar. He also developed into the No. 1 villain among Knick fans who chanted expletives at the polarizing guard during the series (one even spat on Young during the game). When he eliminated the Knicks in Game 5, Young took a bow at midcourt to cement his heel status at MSG.

JUNE 7: TOM THIBODEAU WINS COACH OF THE YEAR

The 2020-21 Knicks were molded in the Thibodeau way: superbly conditioned, winners of the hustle stats and feisty on defense. Before Thibodeau, these same players carried different reputations and most took part in the disastrous 2019-20 Knicks campaign. Finally, it seemed, the the Knicks found their long-term solution on the sideline.

AUG. 25: RANDLE GETS $106 MILLION EXTENSION

At the time, it was a no-brainer for the Knicks. They get an All-NBA player in his prime for a bargain. Randle could’ve waited until 2022 to hit free agency and potentially earn $100 million more, but he took the safe option. The Knicks, as a result, committed to their power forward until 2026. Randle has struggled since signing that deal and entered COVID-19 protocols on Thursday.

AUGUST: KEMBA WALKER AND EVAN FOURNIER SIGNED FOR COMBINED $96 MILLION

The Knicks entered free agency with copious cap space and spent most of it on a new backcourt. Neither Walker nor Fournier produced consistently for the rest of 2021, however, leaving concerns about Leon Rose’s summer.

NOV. 29: THIBODEAU BENCHES WALKER

Amid struggles and an uneven start, Thibodeau surprisingly removed Walker completely from the rotation just 20 games into the season. The move made sense since the team was getting pummeled with Walker in the lineup, but it also backfired. The Knicks went 2-7 after the demotion, and Thibodeau was forced to start Walker again because of so many COVID-19 infections. Walker then highlighted a Christmas victory at MSG with a triple-double.

DEC. 8: OBI TOPPIN’S DUNK

It was a meaningless two points on breakaway, but Toppin’s under-the-legs jam against the Pacers underscored the excitement surrounding the 23-year-old. After a disappointing rookie season, Toppin has quickly emerged as the new fan favorite, a nightly highlight show who is the subject of regular chants at MSG. There’s always a young player who garners the attention and hopes of the fanbase. This season, it’s Toppin.

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