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Can Knicks show last year was no fluke?

Photo: Wendell Cruz/USA Today Sports

Last season was as good as it got for first-year Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau and his team. It was like a honeymoon of sorts.

There was no criticism or fan outrage from the Knicks fans. The local media praised the Knicks as the little engine that could. Yes, the Thibodeaus could do no wrong with their defense-first and team-first basketball. It felt like watching a professional NBA team, which was refreshing and beautiful for the eyes.

The Knicks enter Year 2 of the Thibodeau era. They start their campaign on Wednesday night at home against the Boston Celtics. They approach this season whether or not last season was for real or a fluke. They know no teams will sneak up on them anymore.

It’s not just the only question that has to be answered. The Knicks have to wonder if Julius Randle can duplicate his excellent play from last season. They have to hope Kemba Walker’s knees stay healthy for him to be productive. They have to hope Evan Fournier is not Elfrid Payton. They have to wonder if RJ Barrett will ever be a star they hope he is.

The Eastern Conference teams improved. The Chicago Bulls should be better with Lonzo Ball. The Indiana Pacers should be better with Rick Carlisle prowling the sidelines as their head coach. The Charlotte Hornets should take the next step with LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges and rookie James Bouknight. The Atlanta Hawks will be better after an impressive playoff run, which includes beating the Knicks in five games.

It will take another excellent coaching job by Thibodeau to get the Knicks to the playoffs. It’s hard to bet against him since he is one of the best regular-season coaches in the league.

But again, talent matters. I don’t know if the Knicks have enough talent to keep up with the teams in the East. If they were in the Western Conference, they would be hard-pressed to make the playoffs, even if Thibodeau was coaching them.

Everything has to go right for the Knicks just to make the playoffs. Had they acquired Damian Lillard, they would have been a lock since he is a star that is a difference-maker. You can’t say the same about anyone on the Knicks roster.

No one is going to confuse Walker now with the Walker of yesterday anymore. His knees could be shot, and he can’t shoot like he used to back when he was at UConn and with the Hornets. This seems like a leap of faith for the Knicks to sign him. It wasn’t like no one was calling for his service. That should be a red sign. There’s a good chance he could spend more time on the injured list than be on the court. If the Knicks get 70 games out of him, that would be impressive.

Fournier played for different teams. He has been a streaky shooter. I am not sure what to expect out of him. Either he is better than I thought or he might as well be Payton. Time will tell.

Randle could regress to the mean. He put career-high numbers with 24.1 points per game. He never put those types of numbers before, so it could be he could take a dip in points. He will be productive, but it may be different from last season. His defense should be fine, though.

Then, there’s Barrett. Yes, he improved by shooting 44% from the floor and 40% from the 3-point line. But he also is streaky. He needs to get better at crunch time. There are doubts about if he can take his game to another level. He couldn’t have been any worse from his rookie year. Now, it’s time to see if he can play like an elite player. If he can take the next step, the Knicks got something, and he and they can make this season memorable.

How will the Knicks handle high expectations? Make no mistake. Knicks fans want more than just making the playoffs. They want a playoff run. It’s hard to tell if they can do that. The feeling here is they are a nice regular-season team that will play hard and gives it their best shot. They may win games, but come postseason, stars matter as they found out the hard way with Trae Young in the playoffs.

Maybe Barrett transforms into the Knicks’ Young. If he is, then that changes everything. We have to wait and see.

This season is going to be interesting. Can the Knicks take the next step? Can they duplicate last season? What does Thibodeau have for an encore?

These questions show the regular season is worth watching. That can be a good thing actually. Regular season games should mean something. It beats watching the Nets knowing their season really starts in the postseason since they should be a lock to make the playoffs.

There’s no doubt everyone will be watching what the Knicks do.



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