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Friday July 30th, 2021 6:36PM

Knicks make surprise playoff return, need work to stay there

By The Associated Press
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NEW YORK (AP) — Everyone was about to head home for the summer when a “Let's go Knicks! Let's go Knicks!" chant broke out at the end of Game 5 at Madison Square Garden.

After years of disappointing them, the New York Knicks had given their fans a team they couldn't get enough of.

“I think we’re bringing a brand of basketball back that the city can be proud of,” Julius Randle said.

Now the Knicks will work on giving them one that can be a regular contender again.

A surprising first season under Tom Thibodeau ended Wednesday with a 4-1 loss in the first round to the Atlanta Hawks. It was the Knicks' first postseason appearance since 2013 and one that was unexpected.

“I don’t think anyone saw them doing what they did,” Thibodeau said. “Everyone doubted them all year. They didn’t doubt themselves. So there was a great belief. They worked as hard as they could possibly work.”

Randle emerged as an All-Star and was the runaway winner of the NBA's Most Improved Player award. The rest of the Knicks quickly took to Thibodeau's defensive schemes and overachieved their way to a 41-31 record and the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.

“We put the league on notice that we really are here,” guard RJ Barrett said. “We’re a playoff team.”

But the series against the Hawks showed how far they are from being much more than that. Atlanta forced Randle into tough shots or passes that too often resulted in turnovers or misses by his teammates.

The Knicks lack the creators and shot makers the Hawks have assembled, but don't even have to look at Atlanta to see the limits of the roster. Not when Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving are playing on one team in their same city.

But that team in Brooklyn is supposed to be a powerhouse. The Knicks weren't, which is why the 16,000-plus fans who packed their playoff games were happy to accept them for what they were.

“We saw the fans and of course the arena and there’s no other arena like this, there’s no other fans like this,” Thibodeau said. “So we’re proud of what we did, but we know we still have a long way to go and that’s the way we have to approach it. It doesn’t get easier. It gets harder.”

Things to know about the offseason:

ASSETS AHEAD

The Knicks could have around $60 million in salary cap space along with two first-round picks this summer, giving team president Leon Rose multiple ways to upgrade the roster.

RANDLE'S ROLE

Randle did everything for the Knicks in averaging 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists during the regular season, but shot under 30% in his first postseason. The Knicks will have to decide if the forward is the player they build around, or if someone better has to be brought in to be the main man at MSG.

ROSE RETURN?

The Knicks traded for Derrick Rose during the season and he played so well that Thibodeau moved his former star in Chicago into the starting lineup during the playoffs. The former NBA MVP said it's up to the Knicks if they want him to return.

“I would love to come back. Who wouldn’t want to play for the Knicks or be in New York?” Rose said. “Like, I would love it but at the same time I know that it’s out of my hands and they may have bigger plans.”

OBI'S OPPORTUNITY

The Knicks took college player of the year Obi Toppin with the No. 8 pick in last year's draft but he didn't make much of a mark playing behind Randle, averaging 4.1 points in 11 minutes per game. But a full offseason should benefit the high-flying forward.

BEING BETTER

The Knicks may have snuck up on teams this season but they won't be able to do that anymore. Expectations have risen and the Knicks will have to be better to meet them.

“It was a lot of our first time in the playoffs and now we know what to expect,” Barrett said. “Now we know what to expect going into the summer. Work hard and come back hungry for more.”

___

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