Back on Track
The Knicks won big against a depleted team, but it felt vitally important nonetheless.
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Game 39: Knicks 119, Thunder 97 - “Some Unpleasant Tension”
⌚️ TL;DW: This was kind of the inverse of the Bucks game, when New York came out well enough but got their doors blow off starting midway through the second quarter. Conversely, Saturday saw the Knicks come out somewhat flat and more than a little sloppy, falling behind by as many as 11 and trailing 44-36 with seven minutes to go in the first half.
Over the rest of the game though, New York outscored Oklahoma City by nearly a point a minute, putting up 83 points in 31 minutes. For as frustrating as the early going was, I’m more than happy to excuse it as a biproduct of a 2 pm start, not to mention the expected relaxation that occurs knowing you’re facing a bad team missing its best player.
More importantly were the players who put the Knicks back on track. Immanuel Quickley checked in midway through the first, after New York’s offense had arrived DOA, and proceeded to score a dozen points in a little more than six minutes, giving the team a jolt it desperately needed. The floater was back and better than ever:
From that point on, New York’s two stars (oh yeah…we’re going right the eff there today) took over.
From the three-minute mark of the first to the nine-minute mark of the third, RJ Barrett didn’t quite outscore the Thunder by himself, but his 19 to their 34 wasn’t too shabby either. He was also one of several Knicks to step up their defense from the middle of the second quarter right up until the end of the game:
(The best part of this play isn’t even the outstanding individual defense on a driving Maledon, but RJ being in precisely the right position to force the Horford pass, and then instantly knowing that his assignment was to recover to the man that Burks just left open to cover the corner. Also notice the closeout: hard, hand up, attempting to force sideline but also quick enough to recover middle once Theo turns the corner. Just fantastic defensive principles and awareness in action.)
Oh, and the Knicks All-Star (and maybe All-NBA’er) Julius Randle wasn’t bad either, becoming the first Knick since Mark Jackson in 1989 to have multiple triple doubles in the same season. Every facet of his game was on full display, and he took advantage of a bevy of ill-equipped Thunder defenders exactly as a star should.
In the end, this one wasn’t close - nor should it have been. The competition is about to get much tougher though, so good job by then not bumbling this.
🚧 Sore Spots 🚧
It wasn’t all fun and games.
Aside from the big three and dirty-work dignitary Taj Gibson, no one played particularly well, with the rest of the team combining to shoot just 15-of-39. The two lowest lights were undoubtedly Frank and Obi though, albeit for different reasons.
Ntilikina had a game reminiscent of his infamous outing versus the Magic from November of 2018. You may remember it as the unceremonious death of the Timmy/Dot/Vonleh/Mitch/Frank quintet, which had up to that game played 92 minutes to the tune of a positive 10.1 net rating.
He took three shots in five minutes that day, missed them all, and was sent to the bench, not to be seen again. He was a reserve in the next game, and for all intents and purposes, that was the end of any meaningful opportunity he ever had in New York. Similar story on Saturday: five minutes, 0-for-1, and then no reentry until garbage time.
Was yesterday Frank’s fault any more or less than anyone else’s? Probably not. Did he do himself any favors with his performance? Not particularly, but it also shouldn’t have been a surprise. For his career, Ntilikina has the following splits between starting and coming off the bench:
2017-18: Starters: minus 5.7, Bench: minus 1.5
2018-19: Starters: minus 8.3, Bench: minus 8.7
2019-20: Starters: minus 6.4, Bench: minus 0.8
2020-21: Starters: minus 43.5 (not a misprint), Bench: plus 2.1
It is what it is at this point. I’ll be very curious what happens tonight with Derrick Rose once again out and Elfrid Payton doubtful.
As for Obi, he only played nine minutes, and a quick review of the tape shows us why:
Our first play comes at the very start of the fourth quarter, after Obi has just checked into the game for the first time in the second half.
(His first half stint was five minutes long. It included Kenrich Williams - who I kinda love - drawing two shooting fouls, including an and-one, and Obi getting a dunk blocked by the immortal Moses Brown. In fairness, Obi he did sneak in for an offensive rebound and a put-back before he checked out.)
On this play, we can see Toppin commits too far into the paint, assuming that the driver was going to shoot. The intention was OK; the execution was shit, and we can see his feet get stuck in molasses as he turns to jet back out for the contest - something that John Hollinger pinpointed in his review of Obi’s rookie season last week. If you look carefully, you can see a vein in Thibs’ head pop at the very end.
Here’s the very next Thunder possession.
This time, Justin Jackson sizes up Obi and takes him off the dribble. You can see the Knicks’ rookie think briefly about jumping up to try and block the attempt, but my guess is that he remembered the two times Williams caught him in the air in the first half, and thought better of it.
And then we have the final play, this one a few minutes later, and Toppin’s last meaningful possession before he was yanked for Randle:
In fairness, this is a really nice drive and dish from Jackson, who threads the needle between Taj and Bullock to get Brown an easy attempt.
Still, Obi’s inability to stay with his man forces Gibson to leave his man to begin with.
Simply put, Toppin’s inability to play basic NBA defense is hurting the Knicks right now far more than his offense is helping them. Long term, I still believe he might be fine, but the equation of playing him at the four so a more traditional defensive center can be on the floor might need re-examination. It’s completely neutering any significant offensive contributions he might otherwise be making, and it’s clear that trying to hide him on defense may not be paying off enough to make the current scenario worth it.
Let’s throw a little statistical love to each of our Saturday Stars:
⭐️ Immanuel Quickley
The 25th pick in the draft floated his way to yet another 20-point game, the 8th of his short career in just 35 contests, with every one of them coming off the bench. I also adore how he fought for this board with a human being who might literally be twice his size:
According to Basketball Reference, his total of eight 20-point games is tied for the second most ever for a reserve rookie over his first 35 career contests, and the most since 1989:
Ruland is probably best known for being dealt to Philly for Moses Malone, but before that, he was a two-time All-Star with Washington. Malone, Petrie, Birdsong and Gus Williams also made All-Star games, and Radja, Sabonis, Miller and Worthy are Hall-of-Famers.
While I’m not sure that’s quite the trajectory for our young son Immanuel, the fact that most of the players on the above list were meaningful NBA contributors for a long time is a great sign. Come to think of it, Rex Chapman - another Kentucky product who toggled between both guard spots - might not be the worst comp for Quickley, at least in terms of overall offensive impact.
His Twitter account ain’t bad either.
⭐️⭐️ Julius Randle
Julius Randle had a 26-point, 12-rebound & 12-assist triple double against the Thunder, including five dimes to our (spoiler alert) 3-star recipient, RJ Barrett:
Randle’s scoring output came despite only taking 15 shots from the field thanks to 10 trips to the line and 3-of-6 from deep, bringing his yearlong 3-point percentage up to 41.2 on 4.5 attempts per game. After his performance, Randle joined Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic as the only NBA players this season to hit at least 41 percent from long range on at least 175 attempts while also scoring at least 800 points.
That’s not his stat of the weekend though. According to Basketball Reference, Randle became just the 10th player ever to have a 26, 12 & 12 effort on 15 or fewer shots in a game his team won, joining Wilt Chamberlain (4x), Oscar Robertson (2x), Nikola Jokic (2x), Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd, Dolph Schayes, Paul Pierce, Ben Simmons and Doc Rivers. Not bad.
⭐️⭐️⭐️ RJ Barrett
As you may have seen on my Twitter account over the weekend (also thanks to our friends at Basketball Reference), RJ Barrett became just the 8th player aged 20 or younger to get at least 32 points & 3 steals in a win since 1995, joining LeBron James (9x) Carmelo Anthony (2x) Kyrie Irving, (2x) Kevin Durant, Luka Doncic, Chris Bosh and D'Angelo Russell.
With his recent hot stretch (21.0 points over his last seven games on 58 percent from the field and 56 percent from deep), Barrett has now pushed his season scoring average over 17, and more importantly (for him, at least), his true shooting percentage - which takes into account two’s, three’s and free throws - to 53.
Here’s the list of players who have hit those marks in an age-20-or-under season:
Obviously it’s not all hits - Mr. Evans, Mr. Wiggins and Mr. Okafor say hello - but it is an encouraging one nonetheless.
If we add the qualifiers of 5.0 boards and 2.5 dimes, the list drops to Magic, C-Webb, KG, Kobe, LeBron, KD, Evans, Doncic, Zion..and RJ. Only LeBron, KD & Luka join Barrett in those marks plus at least one made 3-pointer per game.
Point is, if you believe that Barrett will follow a somewhat normal age-related progression over the course of his career, there’s no reason to think an All-Star upside doesn’t exist for him.
That’s how significant the last several weeks have been. We may very well be in the midst of the moment everyone looks back on a decade from now and goes “Oh yeah, remember when RJ Barrett became RJ Barrett right around the middle of his second season? Shit, that was fun.”
Enjoy it. Kid doesn’t turn 21 until June.
🏀 Who: Brooklyn Nets (26-13, 2nd in the East)
⌚️ When: 8:00 pm
½ Halftime Zoom: Click here to enter.
📍 Where: An outer borough
🤕 Who’s Out: KD for the Nets, and Mitchell Robinson (hand), Austin Rivers (personal reasons - birth of a child) and Derrick Rose (health & safety protocols) for the Knicks. Elfrid Payton is doubtful with a sore hammy.
Heading into yesterday, the Knicks were smack dab in the middle of the league with the 15th ranked net rating in the NBA, but where they slot specifically is less important than how large a group occupies the juicy center of the association:
That’s 14 teams with a net rating difference of just 2.6 between them. Above the 9th-placed Grizz are the Sixers, who have a far more robust plus-4.4 figure, and then below the 22nd-ranked Bulls are the Pistons at negative 3.8 - quite a step down.
I’m ending here to clarify exactly where the Knicks stand in the grand scheme of the league. Yes, of course, we hope they continue to win games and maybe even make a run at the sixth seed. Realistically though, as long as the Knicks stay somewhere in this middling pack that comprises roughly half the league, I’ll say it right now: this season will have been a success.
The last time they weren’t clearly in the bottom tier of the NBA was 2013-14, when they finished with a negative 1.1 net rating, good enough for 18th in the league, but a massive disappointment considering their preseason over/under of 50 wins - a number they fell 13 games short of meeting.
This year, they’re already two wins away from clearing the modest hurdle Vegas set back in November, and that’s with 33 games remaining.
Just something to keep in mind as they navigate a difficult second half which, regardless of whether it’s as good as the first, shouldn’t diminish what they’ve already accomplished.
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