It all started during a blowout in the Nation's capital after a big win at home the night before against the Pistons.
The Knicks came out flat and were getting run off the floor, trailing by 22 points after three sleepy and uninspired quarters of basketball. The game was over and the team was ready to pack up and head on the Acela Express back to Penn Station.
Except Derrick Rose, who wasn't finished.
Maybe it was the pride of the moment, or the thirst to compete against another former number one overall pick, John Wall, who was having a tremendous game. Whatever it was, Rose wasn't finished playing and he literally tried to rally the Knicks by himself. Rose started to make shots and some great passing -- 10 points and three assists in the final frame to be exact -- and soon everyone else jumped on board. Brandon Jennings started making shots, then Justin Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis.
The Knicks would get as close as eight points and couldn't close the gap, but their 47-point fourth quarter outburst triggered by Rose told me there was something special about his will to win.
He could have easily quit and no one would have every noticed or cared. Carmelo Anthony would have shouldered the heat as he always does with answers like "we needed more energy," or "we can't come out flat" but the real answers were spoken, in many ways, through Rose's play in that fourth quarter.
The Knicks are a fascinating team to watch for many reasons, but without question in my estimation they are so because of their dynamic trio of Rose, Porzingis, and Anthony. None of the three can absolutely carry the team every single night. Anthony can on certain nights as can Porzingis, but in order for the Knicks to be at their best, two of the three have to be at an elite level. The odds of this increase when all three are in the lineup.
Despite back spasms that have sidelined him four full and two half games of the Knicks' ten in December, Rose is in the midst of a really solid month of basketball. When he's played 25 or more minutes, they are 5-0 and averaging 114.8 points per game. The margin of victory in those five wins, which have come over the Wolves, Kings, Heat, Lakers, and Pacers, has been 7.2.
With a productive Rose, the Knicks are beating the average-to-below-average teams consistently, which tells you they are a step above. And after a slow start, Rose is starting to elevate his level of play while staying within the context of what head coach Jeff Hornacek wants from him.
Case in point was the other night against Indiana -- a game that saw him finish strong in the second half en route to an easy 24 point, six assist, four rebound effort. With the Knicks up seven points with just under two minutes to go, they were in disarray offensively and spread the floor for Rose to attack the basket. Without hesitation, Rose recognized the Pacers' bigs were in no position to help at the rim, so he attacked it easily, driving past Jeff Teague for a strong, uncontested layup. That basket put the Knicks up nine points, caused Indiana to call timeout and closed the door.
What made that such a big play? Its demoralizing nature. When the Pacers were trying to get a big stop, they gave up a layup. For all the fascination over point guards who can jack up three pointers "with efficiency," there is no metric for giving up a layup in a half court situation. And few guards in the NBA can do it like Rose can. In his last 10 games, Rose is averaging 17.5 points on 53 percent shooting from the floor to go along with 3.7 assists and 3.5 rebounds -- and the Knicks are 7-3.
Before the back spasms, Rose was more active off the ball as well putting up higher assist (5.1) and rebounding (4.2) numbers in the month of November. It's hard to predict that the back issues won't linger so it will be very interesting to see how he chooses to try to make the extra effort play m-- particularly on the defensive end -- over the next few weeks.
It's hard to discount just how important his rebounding is to the Knicks in key situations, especially when they are forced to play Jennings and Courtney Lee -- two guards who aren't great rebounders at their position -- in the backcourt. In the five games without Rose (including the Phoenix game which saw him play just 10 minutes), the Knicks are being out-rebounded by an average of four per game, which is exactly how many Rose is averaging per game.
Moving forward, we have a pretty good idea of what the Knicks are right now. With a healthy Rose, they have a pretty formidable team that can handle the middle-to-lower-tier teams on a regular basis in a league that doesn't have a lot of parity. As scary as it is, the Knicks can start to make the climb up, but that rests on the health of Rose, which was one of the big concerns coming into the season.
That's the dynamic with the former MVP and former overall number one pick that you have to live with because the results, when healthy, are pretty darn good.