When the Knicks clinched a playoff spot earlier this month, my first thought was to wickedly compare it to the resurfacing of the 17-year cicadas. The team, similar to the insect, has the habit of presenting itself as a championship contender only after an unnaturally long absence. Their last sighting was in 2013, the single time this century that they have won a postseason series. (They were promptly knocked out in the following round.) Each of the eight years after that, the Knicks’ final record was on the wrong side of .500, buried as they were under the weight of bad trades, inept coaching, and draft day debacles.
But now the Knicks are winning again and, as with those cicadas, generating mad amounts of buzz.
The Knicks didn’t just scrape into the playoffs — they’re the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. That’s a nice accomplishment, but they have a long way to go before sniffing the NBA Finals in July, where they’d have the chance to do what’s not been done in New York City since 1973: win it all.
This BBC nature documentary says that once 17-year cicadas appear above ground, they become easy pickings for the local wildlife. As Richard Attenborough plummily explains it, “The adults are clumsy and very edible.” Which brings us back to our analogy to the Knicks. The team appears to be evenly matched with their first round opponent, the Atlanta Hawks, whom they beat three out of three times this season, albeit with some of the Hawks’ best players on the injured list. However, the deeper the Knicks advance in the playoffs, the more likely it becomes that they will confront the apex predator of the NBA’s Eastern Conference: The Brooklyn Nets.
How formidable are the Nets and their “Big Three” of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving? Take a gander at this video highlight of a fast break from their last game of the season. As announcer Ian Eagle exclaims, it’s the kind of “razzle-dazzle rack attack” that few other teams can match. (Note: I have watched this video 10,014 times to be sure it actually happened.)
Monica McNutt, a basketball analyst for ESPN and MSG Networks, contends the Knicks’ success primarily depends on a trio of positive traits: MVP-caliber power forward Julius Randle, tough defense, and teamwork among all fifteen players on the roster.
“The Nets have three banner guys, a ‘Big Three,’” she told Gothamist/WNYC. “But the way that this Knicks team has been able to be successful is they really see themselves as the ‘Big Fifteen.’”
All 30 of the NBA’s teams have passionate fans who feel ecstatic when they’re up and desolate when they’re down. But there’s just something about the mythos of the Knicks in their hometown of 75 years — the Nets have been here only nine — and how New York sees itself as a cradle of great basketball.
“It’s the streets — it’s because of street ball,” said McNutt when asked where that attitude comes from. “I’m a Washington, DC, native and we take a ton of pride in the culture of our ball. I think of New York the same way: if you throw a stone, it’ll land on a basketball court. And as soon as kids can pick up a ball, it’s just what you do. It’s the sport that suits the city.”
Listen to Jim O’Grady’s report on WNYC:
An essential trope of sports is believing your team embodies your community, especially when they’re winning. And when they’re not, it’s painful. That’s deeply true for Knicks fans, whose allegiance is tangled up in the mystic chords connecting the playgrounds to the pros — and their sense that, if the world were just, the city’s native genius for hoops would translate to Madison Square Garden.
To that idea, McNutt says, chill. “We joke about the 17 years that has been forever for a franchise to be down,” she said. “And the national media has enjoyed the Knicks being the butt of the joke. But I think perspective becomes so tremendously important.”
She says dynasties just don’t happen a lot in sports. “There’s a reason why the Lakers and the Celtics organizations are what they are like. It’s hard to win and we need to appreciate all that goes into success,” McNutt said.
She’s right. But Knicks fans are in no mood to appreciate the success of others. They want it for themselves and they want it to last beyond this season. Figuratively speaking, if the Knicks find themselves bounced out of the playoffs, as is likely at some point, the last thing their fans want to hear in their heads is Richard Attenborough’s narrative voice as he closes the loop on our uncharitable analogy: “The cicadas here will not be heard again for another 17 years.”
The Nets’ square off against the Boston Celtics at the Barclays Center Saturday at 8 p.m., and the Knicks will play the Atlanta Hawks at Madison Square Garden at 7 p.m. on Sunday. With the relaxation of Covid rules, both arenas could hold up to 13,000 fans (the Knicks sold out their 15,000 seats at MSG). The Nets’ first round games will be broadcast by ABC and TNT, and you can catch the Knicks on MSG.
Before gorging on the double delight of both New York teams in the playoffs, we suggest a deep dive into the lore of the city’s street ball culture with an in-person or virtual visit to the City/Game exhibition at The Museum of the City of New York, which will be on view through June 20. Also, give a listen to this wild WNYC story about the show.
It’s possible that the Knicks and Nets could face each other next month in the Eastern Conference finals. It’s happened before: in 2003, before the Nets had traded the swamps of Jersey for the global brand of Brooklyn. Trigger warning for Knicks fans: That time, the Nets swept the series four games to none.