This was on Dec. 4, about 30 hours after a humiliating home loss to the Mavericks in which the Knicks allowed 24 made 3-pointers and gave up a mind-numbing 41 third-quarter points. They were booed off the Garden floor and sunk to a season-low three games under .500. 

That night, coach Tom Thibodeau made a change. He sliced his rotation down to nine and sent Cam Reddish and Derrick Rose to the bench. The Knicks responded with their best win of the season to that point, a 92-81 victory over the Cavaliers. 

“Sometimes, you lose rhythm if you’re playing too many guys,” Thibodeau said at the time. “It’s better to make a tough decision and get where everyone has rhythm.” 

That tough decision was the spark the Knicks needed, apparently. Since then, they have been one of the best teams in the league, sitting eight games north of .500 at 35-27. This is no longer a small sample size. It can’t be dismissed. It shouldn’t be disregarded. Through injuries and slumps, Thibodeau has stuck with that nine-man rotation to splendid results. 

Tom Thibodeau’s decision to trim the Knicks’ rotation turned the season around.

Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose was dropped from the rotation as a result of Tom Thibodeau’s decision.
Noah K. Murray-NY Post

Over the last 39 games, the Knicks have won 25 times, and they didn’t have the services of defensive backbone Mitchell Robinson for 12 of those contests. Only four title-contending teams — the 76ers, Nuggets, Bucks and Celtics — have a higher winning percentage in that time. That’s a 53-win pace over nearly half of a season. In those 39 games, the Knicks have the fourth-best offensive rating in the league (118.1), the ninth-best defensive rating (112.9), a number that would likely be higher had Robinson not suffered that fractured right thumb, and tied with the Nuggets for the second-best NET rating (plus 5.2), meaning they are outscoring the opposition by 5.2 points per 100 possessions in that time. 

One major by-product of Thibodeau’s rotation: an increased role for Immanuel Quickley, who is having by far the best season of his young NBA career. On Dec. 4, he was averaging 22.8 minutes and 10 points per game on 30.8 3-point shooting. Since then, his numbers: 30.7 minutes, 14.4 points and 37.3 percent from distance. The Knicks are also outscoring the opposition by an average of five points when Quickley is on the floor over the last 39 games, compared to 1.3 over the first 23. He has become a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. 

It’s not like everything has gone perfectly in that span. RJ Barrett has struggled after missing two weeks with a lacerated right index finger at the turn of the new year. The Knicks did suffer through a few mini losing streaks in there, a five-game string of setbacks in late December and four straight defeats in mid-January. But they responded both times, and are now in one of their upswings, winners of five consecutive games entering Monday night’s showdown with the best-in-the-NBA Celtics at what should be a rocking Garden. 

Immanuel Quickley
Immanuel Quickley has benefitted from increased playing time.
Noah K. Murray-NY Post

They find themselves percentage points behind the fading Nets for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, and just two games behind the fourth-place Cavaliers in the loss column. And they absolutely belong. Since Dec. 4, the Knicks are 10-7 against teams with winning records, beating contenders like the Cavaliers twice, Celtics on the road, Suns and Kings at home. Those seven losses have come by an average of 7.8 points and two were in overtime. 

“I think we’re OK. We’re in a solid spot right now,” Barrett said after Saturday’s rout of the Pelicans. “Of course, [we’re] aspiring for more.” 

Why not? Over the last 11 weeks, the Knicks have been one of the best teams in the NBA, shattering the low preseason expectations from the outside. With 20 games to go, they look capable of beating anybody.