Credit: Bill Moore photo

When the Knicks take the court at Madison Square Garden on Sunday to host the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of their best-of-seven opening round Eastern Conference playoff series, it will symbolize the dawning of their earlier than expected transformation.

It is only the beginning stages of the organization’s primary objective of first being a perennial postseason contender, then a consistent championship caliber team. Yet the optimism and excitement surrounding them as they await the young and talented Hawks is palpable.

It’s been eight long years since the Knicks have been in the playoffs. From the 2013-’14 season through the 2019-’20 campaign, the franchise had a dreadful accumulative record of 184-374. They employed six head coaches, including two with the title of Interim—Kurt Rambis and Mike Miller. The Knicks unsuccessfully made a deep financial and sentimental investment in Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson, who won two titles as a player with their legendary 1970 and 1973 teams.

Yet his 11 championships as head coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers did not translate into Jackson flourishing as the Knicks’ president starting in March of 2014 and ending acrimoniously in June of 2017. His teams finished no better than third place in the Atlantic Division under his leadership.

Now with Leon Rose as president and Tom Thibodeau the head coach, the franchise finally exudes stability and competency. However, when Rose took over in March of 2020 and brought on Thibodeau four months later, the initial reactions to both of their hires was mixed. Some lauded them while others were decidedly skeptical. Thus far, they have inarguably far surpassed what virtually every basketball critic predicted.

Nevertheless, Thibodeau and his players are not falling into a trap of believing they are playing with house money. With a regular season record of 41-31—sports betting entities had their projected win total at 21.5 entering the season—and the No.4 seed in the East, they are not looking beyond the No. 5 seeded Hawks, but are justifiably confident in their capacity to move beyond the first round.

The Knicks swept the Hawks in three matchups with them this season. Still, with a formidable roster anchored by a dynamic core of point guard Trae Young and forward John Collins, the playoffs are a new set of circumstances.

“That means nothing going into the playoffs,” said Thibodeau on Sunday regarding the Knicks’ previous results against Atlanta. His comments came after guiding his team to a 96-92 win over the Boston Celtics in their final game before the postseason.

“The regular season is the regular season. When you play those games, there are a lot of things that go into it. There could be players out, travel involved.

“Now we’re at a zero base. We know how well they’re playing. They’ve gotten a lot better as the season has gone on so we have to be ready and play a 48-minute game.”

Veteran point guard Derrick Rose echoed Thibodeau’s assessment. “That’s the regular season, coming into the games the urgency is going to be very high, the intensity is going to change, and we’ve just got to go all out,” said Rose

“We know how big these two games are with them playing in our house, and we’ve got to take care of these two games and play as hard as we can, and we’ll deal with it game by game but we’ve got to take care of the first one first.”

If you are heretofore a long suffering and frustrated fan of the team, the mere fact discussions by and about the Knicks are pertaining to them playing a postseason series, is cause for excitement.