The Knicks defense crashed and burned on Saturday night. Let's examine what went wrong.
Good morning! We have an absolutely jam-packed newsletter to get to today, so let’s do it, but to any full subscribers who missed the special bonus newsletter recapping Friday’s win, check it out here. And of course, if you’re not a full subscriber and would like to become one…
🏙 Game Night 🏙
Who: Minnesota Timberwolves
Where: Land of many lakes
When: 9:15 pm
Injury Report: Mitchell Robinson will be re-evaluated next weekend after spraining his knee on Friday night, so he’s out for sure. Quentin Grimes, meanwhile, is listed as questionable after sitting out on Saturday. For Minnesota, Rudy Gobert remains in health and safety protocols and will reportedly miss this one.
Halftime Zoom: Click here to enter.
What to Watch For: Unlike the Celtics, the Wolves are one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the league, so that’s a plus. I want to see how Cam does guarding Anthony Edwards, as well as how the Knicks try to take advantage of Karl-Anthony Towns in the post. These teams have played games down to the wire of late.
Game Recap: Knicks 118, Celtics 133
⌚️30 Seconds or Less: Not much time to catch your breath in this one. Boston came out firing, making 5-of-6 from deep in the first 3:23 to take a 15-5 lead. As they would do several times on this night though, the Knicks battled back, and with the Celtics without any semblance of rim protection, New York bludgeoned Boston to the tune of 64 points in the paint. Unfortunately, the Knicks’ 3-point defense was too shoddy and too many Celtics were on point. A close game throughout finally got away from the home team with a few minutes left to go, as New York set an ignominious record for most threes allowed in a game.
🤔 Rotation Reflections: After the 4th quarter fun on Friday, there wasn’t all that much to pontificate about on Saturday, especially with Quentin Grimes and Mitchell Robinson both out. I’ll get into Fournier more below, but it was telling that Thibs played him only 11 minutes in a game where they could have used every able-bodied wing they could get.
As usual, the one sore spot was Toppin, who played just 15 minutes, about half of which was alongside Julius Randle. Obi wasn’t great although he did have some nice moments. Still, I just don’t see a world where Julius Randle needs to be playing 40 minutes in any basketball game, ever. More on that below.
🤕 Picking Nits: I had some Evan Fournier clips that I was going to include today, but thought it bordered too closely on torture porn and decided against it. Fournier checked in a little more than nine minutes into Saturday’s game, and before the first quarter ended, he:
Fouled Jayson Tatum, sending him to the line rather than attempting to show some grit as Tatum was posting him up.
Impersonated a traffic cone while defending a drive, and then worse, didn’t attempt to recover on the kick out.
Showed little resistance as Grant Williams drove and then shot a mid-ranger over his head.
I should note that Fournier hit a three at the end of the quarter on a botched play as time was winding down. It was the only shot he attempted in 11 minutes.
If this weekend’s games, in which he played 25 minutes and was a minus-20, weren’t a clear indication of Fournier’s current disposition, then the whole season should be. He got his bag, it didn’t work out…it happens. Once Grimes returns, there is no role for Fournier on this team, and it’s not like his performance is helping his trade value. Let him ride the pine until he’s needed due to injury, or trade him should the opportunity arise. Otherwise, we’re eight months away from him officially becoming Evan Fournier’s expiring contract.
💫 Stars of the Weekend 💫
⭐️ RJ Barrett: I thought seriously about giving this to Isaiah Hartenstein for his yeoman's work on Saturday night and to Obi Toppin for his Friday exploits in Philly. It’s less because I was so overly impressed by each of them and more because RJ’s negative plays continue to stand out so much to me. I’m probably hard on the kid. What can I say.
Even so, Barrett is the obvious choice because he shot at least 50 percent in each game - a massive accomplishment for him given his efficiency issues. How massive is it? The last time he made at least half of his shots in consecutive outings was games 41 and 42 of last season. The last time he did it in consecutive games while attempting at least 15 field goals in each was games 5 and 6 a year ago.
NOW: if he could just clean up the utterly careless errors, like not being more thoughtful about a kick out pass when there’s a help defender in the area…
…and the defense (some doozy miscues vs Boston, especially late) AND the poor decisions (attempting transition finishes over multiple bodies and recklessly driving into a crowd, to name two examples from Saturday night - both of which led to semi-transition makes), we’d be talking about a real player here.
Still just 22. More than enough time to fix the bad stuff and further capitalize on his very real, very tough-to-guard skills as a driver of the basketball:
Now that’s what I call a strong take! A little later in the 3rd, he had an equally ferocious Euro-step to the hole on Sam Hauser that resulted in an and-one.
The talent is in there. Let’s see it more often!
⭐️⭐️ Cam Reddish: After nine games, the best on-court net rating on New York’s roster doesn’t belong to Jalen Brunson. It also doesn’t belong to Immanuel Quickley or Obi Toppin. Nope. The honor goes to Cam. In his 181 minutes, the Knicks have outscored opponents by 6.5 points per 100 possessions. That number took a big leap this weekend, as New York outscored Philly and Boston by 19 and 4 points during his court time in those games, respectively. Considering they won the first game by just two and lost the second by 15, that’s pretty impressive.
Much more on Reddish’s subtle exploits coming tomorrow.
⭐️⭐️⭐️ Jalen Brunson: The Knicks are just 4-5 and have already had their fair share of harrowingly frustrating moments. Just don’t blame Jalen Brunson for any of it.
While Brunson’s efficiency is down slightly from last season (117.4 points per 100 shot attempts in ‘21-22 to 113.7 PSA now), he’s more than making up for it by upping his assist percentage to 30.4, which ranks in the 69th percentile for his position and is 9th among starting point guards according to Cleaning the Glass1. All eight guys ahead of him have made at least one All-Star team.
None of those individual number are what’s most impressive though. With Jalen Brunson on the floor, New York has a 118.4 offensive rating in 624 non-garbage time possessions, again via CTG. When he’s off, that number plummets to 99.6 in 281 possessions. Even when Derrick Rose is on to back him up, the offense still puts up the equivalent of a bottom-three rating2.
Defensively is where the drop off is supposed to come with Brunson, and while the defense has been 8.1 points per 100 possessions stingier when Brunson sits, that number is a bit deceiving. The on/off stats paint Evan Fournier (10.5 more points given up per 100 possessions when he plays) and Julius Randle (a whopping 12.2 / 100; more on that below) as the real culprits. And sure enough, when Brunson has played without Fournier, the Knicks have defended at a top-six rate, giving up 108.5 points in 280 possessions3.
So as we watch Jalen do ridiculous stuff every game, like putting an All-Defense candidate on skates as he carried New York’s offense…
…let’s even further appreciate just how much of a godsend he’s been to the team this year. His eight 4th quarter points on Friday were massive, and the heater he was on in the 2nd and 3rd quarters vs Boston kept them in the game when it was teetering.
What a strange weekend for these Knicks.
Friday night felt like a blue moon, what with Tom Thibodeau having an out of body experience with his rotation and substitution patterns. The scariest part: it worked, netting the Knicks a game they couldn’t afford to blow. Even so, for most of the first three quarters, New York put forth one of the most listless, dispirited, disjointed efforts you’ll ever see from a Thibs team. They came through when it counted, but eyes immediately turned to MSG on Saturday night.
Little did we know that instead of a basketball game, we’d be getting the Millrose Games. Boston’s 133 points was the third most given up by the Knicks under Thibodeau4, but unlike the routine no-show jobs that this franchise became known for under so many previous coaches, the Celtics weren't (for the most part) benefiting from a lack of effort. In that odd sense, this was a bit of a "right the ship" performance. In addition to playing hard, New York executed on offense as well as they have all season. They probably win this game against 20 other NBA teams, if not more. Unfortunately, none of them were on the schedule.
Even so, the Knicks were as confused a bunch as you’ll ever see under any coach, let alone this one. It was jarring not only because of the sheer volume of threes that went down for Boston (27, a team record, and just two shy of the NBA record), but because of how badly New York botched their coverage in the face of one Boston screen after another. So many shooters in green jerseys fired away with so much room to spare that you’d have thought the home team had just fired their coach and instituted a brand new scheme overnight.
How did it happen, and was there a main culprit? Before I get to my findings from going back and rewatching almost every three attempted or made by the Celtics5, I’ll make two quick points:
No one is without blame. Even the most on point defenders on this night (Cam, with a hat-tip to Hartenstein) weren’t perfect.
Julius Randle had a very nice offensive outing, scoring 29 points on 19 shots with just three turnovers. I bypass using the word “great” here because there were some of the usual bugaboos - forced shots, failures to quickly move the ball to the next man, choosing instead to commander possessions in unproductive ways, etc. Still, you’ll take what you got on offense from him every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
With that out of the way, here’s my personal breakdowns of the collective tragedy:
First, a key…the yellow indicates what I viewed as a strong defensive effort and/or execution. No highlight counts as acceptable. Orange is below average to bad, and red is something I considered egregious. If there are multiple Knicks listed, the first name is who I considered to be more at fault on the play (although we can never be sure in some instances because we don’t know exactly what they’re telling guys as far as responsibilities on given actions).
Second, if you bother to count, you’ll notice that Randle found himself involved in twice as many of these plays (20) as anyone else on the team (Hart was second with 10, which makes sense given how often teams want to bring the opposing center into the action). You’ll also notice from how often he was involved in an action that got botched (orange or red highlight) that it probably wasn’t an accident on Boston’s behalf to target Ju.
Here’s a play early in the game that’s a good place to start, and it isn’t a 3-pointer. Instead, it’s an example of why so many threes were open to begin with:
In a Thibs defense, in theory, there is always someone near the rim to prevent exactly this sort of make from occurring. In this play, that person is Julius Randle.
One of the main reasons we saw open three after open three is because so many Knicks were concerned with walling off access to the paint. This phenomenon can manifest itself in the form of late close outs, switches where both guys spring backwards, and transition D where multiple guys gravitate towards the hoop, just to name three common examples. In all cases, the guy near the hoop is supposed to do something if a three is bypassed and an opponent decides to drive.
That’s what makes this so frustrating: Randle is there…and doesn’t even attempt to get involved in the play. If he commits, there’s another Knick who should be ready to cover the corner. That’s Cam in this case, although Boston does a great job anticipating exactly that chain of events and has Hauser screening off the ball.
Except there was never a kick to the corner because Randle never bothered to impede Brown’s path. Feel free to blame RJ here for failing to get around the initial screen, or Hartenstein for seemingly tripping as he shuffled his feet, but you could live with these errors, just like you could live with a corner three if it came as the result of the Hauser screen. But Randle’s “effort” is tough to accept.
At the very least, you’d hope that Julius would be more apt to get out to the corner if the pass is made…
…but nope, we don’t get that either. Making this play even more frustrating is that Cam Reddish might be New York’s best defender. Marcus Smart is a bulldog, but Cam was handling him just fine here. And as we’ve seen many times (including on a few possessions later in this very game) it’s not like Randle is a significant deterrent at the rim anyway.
The off-ball ugliness doesn’t just happen when Randle is under the rim either:
For a Thibs’ defense to work, not only do all five guys need to be fully engaged, but there needs to be a certain modicum of instinct involved as well. Watch off-ball defense from guys like IQ, Grimes, and even Obi (although he certainly has his issues). There’s a constant bounce to them, always on the balls of their feet, never on their heels. Here, Julius not only isn’t ready to spring out to his man, but there’s a moment of hesitation that makes it even worse.
I cannot emphasize this enough after having rewatched this entire game, and rewatching many attempted threes by Boston several times: no other Knick was nearly as cavalier with their off-ball defense as Julius. The excuse when it happened two years ago was the load he had to carry on offense. That excuse is now gone.
And wouldn’t you know it, guess who took the shot the next time down the court? Of course it was Randle, who let it go from deep, resulting in a brick. If someone wants to start keeping track of a stat for how many times Randle gets beat on defense and then attempts to “make up for it” by scoring on the other end, I promise I’ll publish it in this newsletter once you get to a commensurate sample size. Next play:
I’m not mad at Randle for getting beat initially (although, I swear, if I have to see one more shirtless offseason training video, and then watch a game like this where he’s repeatedly unable to shuffle his feet to keep up with a driving wing, I’m going to lose it). It’s what happens next that peeves me.
If you get beat on a play like this, it’s OK, because in a Thibodeau defense, someone always has your back. Here, that’s RJ Barrett. But there’s a trade off; the man covering for you has left his assignment, which means you need to figure out where to jump to next. In this instance, a smart defender would not only have recognized that RJ left Smart in the corner, but that Cam was now overing for RJ. That’s why the move for Randle here was to shoot out to Tatum in anticipation of the next pass.
Is he slow to get out? Does he recover to the wrong guy? No and no, because he does nothing. Actually, he does something, hop stepping towards the corner after the fact so as to give the appearance of effort. Not buying it Ju. Sorry.
Again, this wasn’t all on him. This was a team breakdown in every sense. But he was, in my estimation, easily the most egregious offender, not only with stuff I highlighted above, but in so many switch miscommunications that I suspect were his fault too. If I thought this was the best he’s capable of, I’d take it easy, but we all know it isn’t.
The Knicks showed us on Saturday night that the have the talent to play with the best teams. But that will also require consistent effort, and at least attempting to execute what the game plan requires.
Not from some players. Not from most.
Stats through Saturday night’s games.
And even that 103.5 number looks like the ‘15-16 Warriors compared to the 51 possessions in which neither Brunson or Rose have been on the court, in which the Knicks have put up just 82.4 points per 100 possessions. Point IQ might need a few more years to marinate.
The defensive rating without Fournier or Randle is frighteningly good, at 94.0, but in just 48 possessions. The offensive rating in those moments? 120.8. Food for thought.
They have up 134 twice, once in lats season’s 2OT season opening win over these same Celtics, and before that in Milwaukee in March of 2021.
I stopped recording before the last two attempts. Also, I must have missed another six along the way because my total doesn’t add up to 51. I blame NBA.com, which didn’t have the videos uploaded by yesterday afternoon. Either that, or my wifi stinks.