And We're Off!
The Knicks played two basketball games over the weekend. Let's talk about them.
Hey there! Welcome to basketball season! It’s so nice to have you. If you’ve stuck with this newsletter through the last nine months when I’ve written about everything other than actual basketball, thank you. Now, with Knicks basketball back in full swing, no, you cannot go back in time.
I kid, I kid. The weekend had more good than bad in my eyes, even though the recency bias of last night’s loss might have you thinking otherwise. As for how the newsletter is going to roll moving forward, I’ll give a quick recap of the games in the news and notes section, and then an extended breakdown in the column. For weekends where there are two games, you can expect a breakdown of the Friday game on Monday, and then the Saturday/Sunday game on Tuesday.
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On to the newsletter…
News & Notes - On the Court:
Friday: Knicks 90, Pistons 84
The Knicks played with a spirited defensive effort that gave the evening an overarching feeling of positivity. On the other hand, it became clear early that for whatever improvements they made, finding the magic formula for a top-20 offense without perimeter shot creation - or just plain decent outside shooting - was not one of them. Still, Obi Toppin showed flashes, and every young player who saw time had at least one moment that made you nod in approval. RJ Barrett rebounded from an ugly 0-for-6 start to finish 7-for-16 and looked like he was starting to figure things out.
Noel got the start over Mitch, Alec Burks flanked RJ on the wing, DSJ was the backup point guard, and Knox and Frank saw 17 and 19 minutes, respectively. Immanuel Quickley didn’t touch the court, joining Iggy and Spellman on the bench for all 48.
New York went 5-of-23 from deep.
Was the defensive effort a mirage? Also, how is this team going to score?
Sunday: Knicks 91, Pistons 99
The defensive effort we saw out of the gate on Friday was lacking at first, although the Knicks held the Pistons to only 68 points over the final three quarters. The offense remained an issue, as the Knicks struggled to shoot their way out of the Pistons’ zone early on, and ultimately finished 8-for-33 from deep. Every Knick aside from RJ Barrett and Alec Burke either struggled or was uneven, with DSJ, Toppin and Knox in particular having brutal offensive outings. Mitchell Robinson had five fouls in short order but persevered to stay in the game, while Julius Randle reverted back to last year’s form of ball-hoggery and poor decision-making. Thankfully, Barrett’s showing - 25 points on 10-for-17 shooting - single-handedly gave fans something to feel good about.
Same starting five and second six, except Quickley saw his first action, and it was at the point. Frank was the 11th man off the bench, as he inverted rotation places with Bullock from Friday. It seems as if Randle, RJ, Payton, Obi, Noel, Mitch, Burks and a healthy Rivers are safe bets to play. That likely leaves DSJ, Knox, Frank and Bullock fighting it out for the final two spots.
New York went 8-of-33 from deep. I’m sensing a trend.
Is the flurry we saw from RJ - who successfully initiated the offense for stretches tonight, in particular during the Knicks run in the 3rd quarter - a sign of things to come?
News & Notes -Off the Court:
Mitchell Robinson said before last night’s game that he doesn’t care whether he starts or comes off the bench.
Call me crazy, but I believe this. That said, I do think Robinson might care a bit about his next contract (because, I mean, who wouldn’t). I don’t think this will become an issue until/if it becomes an issue, and it may not…as long as Robinson shows his worth and continues to improve. That said, if Robinson continues to improve off of what we saw last year, he should probably be starting.
And around and around we go.
The Knicks continue to cycle through a single roster spot in order to sign all the Exhibit 10 deals that were previously announced, most recently waiving Skal Labissière to sign Andrew White, and then waiving White to sign Tyler Hall. That only leaves James Young left to sign.
Film Breakdown of the Weekend
The Knicks are back, but more importantly, so is JB doing breakdowns!
Tweet of the Weekend
We have a couple new episodes up on the revamped KFS YouTube Channel, including last night’s podcast with Jeremy Cohen, in which we recap and analyze the first two preseason games, and an Austin Rivers film breakdown with Kris Pursiainen.
Let’s update our big board with stats from the last week, which included a number of cancelled and suspended games for our top prospects:
Some thoughts and observations:
Cade Cunningham had perhaps his best moment so far, hitting the game winner against Wichita State. This followed up his best scoring effort of 29 points, including 9-for-10 from the line, which he had in the previous game against Oral Roberts. Oklahoma State is 6-0 and aside from perhaps Evan Mobley, it doesn’t feel like there will be any competition for the top spot in the draft. Cunningham looks like a franchise-changer.
Keon Johnson made his debut, and a word of warning: don’t look at his stats.
Well, don’t only look at his stats. His numbers haven’t jumped out so far and they might not all year, but he is an absolute dog of a defender, as this 49-second clip makes absolutely clear:
Scottie Barnes is the guy from this year’s draft that makes everyone ask “what is he at the next level.” As a reminder, he has the makeup of an NBA four in every way, and FSU has him initiating the offense…and it’s kind of working! Most importantly though, he did this in his last game:
Poor Jalen Suggs has gotten on the court once in the last two weeks thanks to all of Gonzaga’s games getting cancelled or delayed.
Kentucky, meanwhile, only wishes some of their games would have been cancelled. They have not won since opening night, proving that Kenny Payne was holding the whole operation together all along, and Brandon Boston Jr continues to struggle from the field. While no one should sell their Boston stock quite yet, things are certainly trending downward.
Today’s column will incorporate the weekend as a whole, but focus on Friday night’s game. You’ll get the full breakdown of Sunday’s effort tomorrow.
Of everything that happened in the Knicks’ preseason opener, this is without question the play that got the most attention:
As it probably should have. For a seven second clip, it contained so much of what so many have wanted to see for so very long:
The Knicks pushed the pace, actually playing fast instead of just talking about it.
They were unselfish, twice bypassing a mediocre shot in an effort to generate a better one, even if it was for someone else.
A young, inconsistent and occasionally marginalized player displayed growth of multiple specific skills that he’d previously struggled with, and most importantly,
(s/o to @SangasSessions for coming up with that one)
If the year-end victory total ends up at 18 or 20 or 22 or however many W’s, but there’s enough of this pixy dust sprinkled on the debris, I think we’d all feel OK heading into the summer. This play was a sign of progress, and an exciting one at that. When you are where we are, signs are good, even if they are few and far between.
But it wasn’t my favorite play of the night. Not close, in fact.
No, my top moment was the defensive sequence that immediately proceeded the Knox/Obi two-man game, not only because it was so unfamiliar, but because it made me think that this might not be yet another season in search of promise amidst a sea of pain:
This is what five guys on a string looks like.
From DSJ’s initial harassment, to Obi’s pointing out an assignment, to Mitch’s initial denial of the preferred action, to Frank always being in the right spot, to Knox’s sticking with a dangerous movement shooter until the switch becomes necessary (and then recognizing as much), it all adds up to an absolute slice of bliss.
It’s not perfect. For all of Toppin’s efforts, he ultimately gets boxed out by a savvy vet move (as Larry Hansgen told me on the pod a few weeks back, Toppin really does need to become a greedy rebounder). Also, for all their work, Knox eventually gives up an open look to a guy who will hit that shot enough to hurt you.
But even that was the result of an overabundance of caution about the far more dangerous shooter in the corner, which is forgivable, not to mention something that will get weeded out with more practice.
And that’s really the most amazing part about Friday night’s performance: it came after a crash course in a curriculum that takes months if not years to perfect.
David Fizdale had two full training camps, not to mention over 100 games, to work with Mitchell Robinson on the finer points of defense, and I’m not sure I’d need two hands to count the number of defensive possessions before Friday where Mitch showed this level of balance between aggression and discipline. Even last night, when he picked up an obscene five fouls in 11 minutes, Robinson played sound D for another eight minutes of action without ever fouling out.
Tom Thibodeau had half this roster for a few weeks in September and then five days of actual practices to work with. If what we saw on Friday is to be believed, he’s managed to instill a sense of poise and purpose into this group, most of whom are not known for things like “effort” and “good.”
Robinson’s first game, in particular, bears highlighting. His conditioning, which has long been the reason for many of the silly fouls, still isn’t there. But he had two blocks, four steals and several other heady plays where he didn’t get sloppy.
Fully weaponizing Robinson may be the lowest hanging fruit Thibs can pick off a tree that has a few juicy apples, but what we’ve seen so far has required a greater reach.
To be clear, the Pistons are doody. Holding Detroit to 50 points between the 3:36 mark of the first quarter until the 5:20 mark of the fourth on Friday - a span of over 34 minutes - is no cause for celebration, especially in a game that didn’t count.
But if you were making a list of “things I can reasonably expect as a fan after one meaningless preseason outing,” this sort of defensive showing had to be near the top of the list.
This looks like a simple side pick and roll coverage, but there’s actually more going on here than might appear at first glance.
For one, Bullock waits until the oncoming screener is in the vicinity before he shifts into ICE coverage, likely after Nerlens Noel communicated as much to him. Noel then repositions to wall off the corner, but not without keeping his hands in the passing lane, forcing Derrick Rose to make a lower entry pass than he’d like. Finally, Elfrid Payton recognizes what’s about to happen and gets to Plumlee just as the pass is arriving, causing the loose ball and leading to a turnover.
These are a lot of little things that add up to a whole that you want to see. Too often in the past, several components have been present, but all it takes is one missing piece to make the entire thing blow up. If you’re wondering why Thibodeau’s rotations are so tight and it takes a lot for young players to earn his trust, it’s because he knows that against modern NBA offenses, defenses - especially ones with historically subpar defenders - are built like a house of cards. One wrong move decimates the structure.
But crossing t’s and dotting i’s isn’t all that Thibs has engendered, at least so far.
I don’t know who the guy wearing the No. 4 jersey is, but he sure isn’t the same one we saw last year. Maybe switching from No. 5 or shedding the braids led to a freeing of Dennis Smith Jr’s soul. Maybe Leon Rose Face/Off’d his mercurial point guard with Pat Beverly. Or maybe the dude just needed a summer to clear his head and a new coach to give him a chance.
Whatever it is, DJS came out and played like a Tom Thibodeau point of attack defender all game long (the offense remains another story entirely). Perhaps he received the message that if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be playing at all.
That’s accountability in action. It wasn’t always present in Minnesota, which is the kind of thing that can happen when you inherit two former first overall picks, one of which didn’t always take to Thibs harsh brand of leadership. It was, is and will remain KAT’s franchise for as long as he is there.
No one in this Knicks locker room is bigger than Thibodeau. Julius Randle, the highest paid player who was guilty of less-than-stellar defensive efforts at times last year, has been about what you’d expect. The one time he and RJ got their signals crossed Friday on who was supposed to cover Blake Griffen in transition, and it led to an open three, this happened:
Coaches yell and scream all the time - Fizdale certainly had his fair share of blue faces - but if you’re being tuned out, it doesn’t matter.
We won’t know whether Thibs has truly gotten through to these guys for a while, but through two games, the Knicks have given up an average of 91.5 points to a Pistons squad that was a middling but not awful 20th in offensive rating last season. Both were on the road, and both featured a healthy Blake Griffin. If you’re a hopeful sort, for the moment at least, you can engage in such positivity without feeling downright silly.
And that is all we can hope for as fans entering a new era of Knicks basketball. For years, all we’ve been asking for is a product we can be proud of, and for one weekend of games that don’t count, that’s (mostly) what we got.
Only two more fake games and 72 real ones to go. What could go wrong?
And last but not least…
Happy Anniversary to my wife (pictured below outside our private dining igloo last night, which we of course left to make it home for tip-off), who I have now been married to for six years and one day. I don’t know how a human being can put up with someone devoting 30 to 40 hours of their week to creating content about a terrible basketball team, but she does, not only with a smile, but a nudge forward when I need one. She is my inspiration and the reason I am able to do this work, so I just wanted to say thanks.
That’s it for today! See you tomorrow for a full breakdown of Sunday night’s action, and as always, thank you for subscribing! #BlackLivesMatter