What makes this Knicks downer so hard to swallow

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It’s not so much the losses, which have recently come to a much more consistent clip than at any other time in the season. This is the kind of loss. This is how these losses happened. If the Knicks had blown up their doors, kicked out of the gym night after night, that would be almost easier to explain.

Almost everyone had indexed them for 22 wins; they already have 25.

Almost everyone thought he would play a chord now, counting the days until draft, free will, recalibration of the roster; instead, they entered the TD Garden on Wednesday night tied with the Celtics, who only made the Eastern Conference final last year. It’s as much about Boston struggles as it is about Knicks surprises, but the standings are the ultimate telltale truth.

And the same goes for the final notes.

This time the scoreboard overhead told the story of Celtics 101, Knicks 99, another close defeat, added to a growing pile of them. In the past 23 days alone, the Knicks have lost to the 76ers by 3 points and 1 point; to the Nets by 5 and by 2, to the Timberwolves by 1. Now the Celtics by 2. They are 2-8 in games decided by three points or less.

It is wonderful and it is terrible.

Julius Randle carries the ball for the Knicks on Wednesday night.
Julius Randle carries the ball for the Knicks on Wednesday night.
NBAE via Getty Images

This is a sure sign of progress; it is a safer sign of the distance to be covered.

“Every day we work to form winning habits,” said Tom Thibodeau, perhaps half an hour after the Celtics pushed a game past his Knicks in the East, dropping them two games under 0.500 ( 25-27) for the first time since February 23.

“We’re trying to do the right things and figure out what’s going on to win, analyze and learn, and you want to learn from every game.”

The coach would never admit it, could never admit it, even with a Big Gulp Serum of Truth, but making the playoffs has always been a side concern this year. The main thing was to formulate a positive dynamic after almost two solid decades of train moving in the other direction.

It has happened. The Knicks play defense every night. They refuse to be intimidated on nights they are outscored in terms of talent – which, despite the record and despite the absence of Kemba Walker from Boston, was certainly the case on Wednesday.

The hope was that Julius Randle’s talent could be maximized under Thibodeau; there is no debate about it. There was hope that RJ Barrett, in his season at 20, would improve, and it became an even bigger reality and an even brighter surprise. Barrett actually plays himself in the conversation as the most improved player in the entire league, and those advancements start to show up every night.

“He came in with the right attitude,” said Thibodeau, “and it’s starting to pay off.

This is all true. It also doesn’t alleviate the growing frustration when winnable games against good teams go the other way. You can take comfort, if you like, in knowing that the Knicks are light years ahead of what even staunch optimists thought they would be in the second week of April. That doesn’t change the aggravation of seeing a seven-point lead evaporate in the fourth quarter. It shouldn’t either.

And that doesn’t change the fact that closing the deal during games like this is part of the progression – and belatedly, after establishing credibility and demanding competitiveness. These elements are there. The last part is to find a way to close. This tip is still coming.

“We have to realize where we are every night,” said Thibodeau. “Someone is playing for something, fighting for something, the intensity is increased. We have to understand that we have to respond to them. I am sure we will.

Said Barrett (29 points, 6 in 6 of 3): “Everyone is playing for something. We are too. We must continue to bring this intensity.

Thibodeau’s methods left a mark – “This is the NBA,” said Barrett, his star pupil, “and we’ve got another Friday, we’ve got to focus and go get that one” – and now there’s has one more obstacle for this edition of the Knicks to negotiate. At some point, closure is no longer the goal. The fence is.

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