The Knicks beat down Boston on Sunday, reminding us again that things are on the right track in the Thibodeau era.
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Game Recap: Knicks 105, Nets 75
⌚️TL;DW: This ESPN game flow graphic says it all:
The Celtics were ice cold from long range all day long, hitting just 7-of-46 deep balls. Some misses came on open looks, but many were met with good contests from the Knicks, who also effectively guarded the paint (finally!). Even so, the lead was only eight until the rookie took control:
Immanuel Quickley spearheaded a run when he scored or assisted on 13 of 14 Knick points, including several McCollum-esque floaters, to stretch the lead to 15. Quickley, who now leads all rookies in points per 36 minutes (min. 100 minutes played) with 19.6, once again changed the entire complexion of the game.
Then, thanks to stellar ball movement from New York…
…not to mention some more engaged defense, Thibodau’s squad scored the first 10 points of the third quarter, and the game was never in doubt from there.
🤕 Injury Watch: Reggie Bullock was back, playing his second consecutive game and shooting 3-of-8 from deep. He totaled 11 points after a muted offensive impact on Friday night.
Alec Burks and Frank Ntilikina, meanwhile, remained out, although it sounds like Burks is progressing nicely and will likely make his return on the team’s west coast swing starting Thursday.
🎩 Toppin It Off: Finally, the Knicks other rookie made his presence known.
Obi Toppin scored 12 points (on eight shots), had two sky-scraping 3-pointers, pulled down five boards, and had a steal and a block in 17 minutes (although the last five of those were garbage time in which he did not attempt a shot. All of his points were impactful).
In the first half, Toppin at times still looked like a rookie who was playing a game that was moving too fast for him:
But he also flashed some skills that remind you why he got drafted 8th overall.
If you’re the sort of person who likes the idea of the kids growing together, you’ll be happy to know that no one has passed the ball to Toppin more than Immanuel Quickley this year. When the two of them are on the floor, even when the Knicks also play a traditional big, good things seem to happen.
In the below play, the spacing is evident. Thanks to Obi’s athleticism, Tristan Thompson is helpless by the time he realizes what’s happening and simply makes a business decision:
Something worth watching once Alec Burks comes back: does Thibs occasionally go five-out, using Toppin at center alongside Knox, Burks, Rivers and Quickley? Something to look forward to, perhaps.
📊 Stat of the Day: By holding Boston to 75 points, the Knicks have crept back into the top-10 in the NBA in defense, ranking eighth with a rating of 107.6. Also, for as much grief as their offense gets, seven of their 14 games have come against teams ranked above them in this category.
🎂 Happy Birthday Coach! Thibs turned 63. The Knicks gave him a nice present after the game:
🐶 Doghouse: Today’s not the day to pile on anyone, because a 30-point win doesn’t happen on the road against the best team in the East without positive contributions from everyone.
And Elfrid Payton did make some positive contributions, playing some of the more solid defense we’ve seen from him all year. He also scored five points in a 55-second stretch in the third quarter when it looked like the Celtics might have had notions about making it a game. But his overall stat line (3-of-9 from the field, three dimes to two turnovers) can only be ignored so much, and he also had a few less-than-stellar moments on the defensive end:
The numbers still say that the Knicks are a better offensive team when Elf plays than when he doesn’t (although he’s had the benefit of being on the court with Julius Randle for nearly all of those minutes) but the stats and eye test says that the defense gets markedly worse: 109.5 defensive rating when Elf is on; 102.2 defensive rating when he’s off.
The above play shows why. In order for Thibodeau’s drop coverage to work, the point of attack defender needs to stay attached to the hip of the ball handler with the intensity of a dog hounding a postal worker, which Elf clearly doesn’t. That forces Mitchell Robinson into a 2-on-1 situation, and Kemba makes him pay. Mitch shouldn’t have been so flat footed and Randle was late with the help, but the lack of urgency starts at the top.
Everyone is using spacing as the reason why the Knicks need to make a change to their starting five, but defensive may play just as big a part.
Mitchell Robinson was probable today after landing funny on Friday night, but started and ended up playing 24 minutes, most of which came after another nasty fall:
I saw some people questioned Thibs, both for playing Robinson at all (he had a noticeable limp to begin the game) and for keeping him in after this spill. My thought is simply that this is why the trainers and team doctors have jobs. If they say he’s OK to go, and Mitch says he’s OK to go, well by golly, he’s good to go in my book.
More importantly, after a very uneven game on Friday (even before the bad fall), Robinson was once again highly engaged on defense for most of this one. His grittiness in playing was refreshing.
Kevin Knox made one of two shots from downtown, bringing him up to 44.2 percent from deep for the year. He also had a nice rebound in traffic:
All good signs from the kid given where he was coming into the season.
Nerlens Noel had two blocks and two steals in 24 minutes. He really does have some of the best and quickest hands in the NBA on defense.
The Knicks still need to clean up the defensive glass. They gave up 14 offensive boards to Boston, and rank 21st in this category according to Cleaning the Glass.
🗣 He Said It: Wise words from Thibodeau after the game, courtesy of Marc Berman:
I told our players this: The way they’re practicing, the attitude, the approach and how they’re practicing has been a positive,’’ Thibodeau said. “I thought going to Cleveland, I thought we were ready to play. I thought we were terrific in the shootaround and we played well enough to win [Friday] on the road. We didn’t close out the game the way we would’ve liked. Then [Saturday] in practice I thought was terrific. As long as we’re doing the right things. I know we’ll improve and we’ll keep getting better.
Stars of the Game
⭐️ Julius Randle: It’s almost getting boring including him here. Randle continues to motor along, scoring 20 points on 14 shots, pulling down 12 boards, dishing four assists and swiping three balls for good measure.
At this point, assuming Randle keeps up these numbers, I’m wondering how much the Knicks would have to lose for him not to end up on the All-Star team. Right now, based on a combination of individual and team performance, only Beal, Durant, Giannis, Sabonis, Embiid, Tatum and Jaylen Brown definitively deserve to make it over Randle, with consideration also going to Malcolm Brogdon, Nikola Vucevic, Trae Young, Gordon Hayward, Ben Simmons, Zach LaVine, Bam Adebayo, Andre Drummond and Collin Sexton (yes, two Cavs make the list! Although Sexton has only played eight games).
I’m penciling him in for now, but the Knicks will need to hang around .500 for that to covert to pen.
⭐️ ⭐️ Immanuel Quickley: I present to you my favorite moment of the game:
Was this the “correct” basketball decision immediately after a poor shot and with a full shot clock in front of him? I don’t really give a shit. I want the rookie that has the stones to put this ball in the air.
Quickley ended up with 17 points and a career high eight dimes in 21 minutes. He is nothing short of a revelation - a shot in the arm for an organization that desperately needed a bit of draft luck.
⭐️ ⭐️⭐️ RJ Barrett: By a hair over the rookie.
You know what’s fun about having a Knicks newsletter? It gives you an excuse to spend way too much time researching inane stats, like this one: There are two NBA players currently averaging at least 16 points, 7 boards, 3 dimes, 3 made free throws and under 2 turnovers per game. One of them is Anthony Davis.
The other is the guy whose biggest improvement this year hasn’t even come on the offensive end:
The numbers are nice, but give me a fight around a screen, followed by a hard dig and then a spirited recovery any day of the week (and many more times on Sunday, as it were!)
Most impressive stat for RJ though? With Julius Randle on the court and Elfrid Payton off the court this season, the Knicks are outscoring teams by 11.9 points per 100 possessions (over 171 possessions total, according to Cleaning the Glass).
Barrett ended up with 19 points on 11 shots, 11 boards, three dimes, and one timely recovery from a rough end of the game on Friday night. He also finds himself in a respectable spot in the free throw percentage rankings league-wide:
🔜 Next Up: The Knicks have their usual MLK Day matinee, today facing the Orlando Magic at noon in MSG.
The Magic have lost five in a row and sport the third lowest net rating in the league over the last two weeks. Evan Fournier will miss this game with a bad back, and Orlando is starting rookie Cole Anthony at point guard following Markelle Fultz’s season-ending injury. Vooch and sixth man Terrence Ross remain the only real threats for this team.
This is a game the Knicks should win, but the last two games that could be described as such resulted in a loss, so beware. Speaking of which…
About Friday Night:
I’d like to forget this game ever happened.
In short, Andre Drummond manhandled the Knicks something fierce, getting a Wilt-like 33 & 23. Even so, this was a shorthanded Cavs team starting Damyean Dotson at point guard and playing essentially a seven-man rotation, one of whom was undrafted rookie Lamar Steven.
Much attention was paid to a few costly RJ Barrett turnovers late (one of which was seemingly a kicked ball by Drummond that wasn’t called), but the Knicks lost this game - which they led by four with 10:55 to go - for three reasons:
The offense stagnated at the wrong time, scoring six points over a seven and a half minute stretch of the third quarter, most of which came with Mr. Payton running the show. A two-point Cleveland halftime lead turned into a 12-point hole, and the Knicks expended too much energy digging out that they couldn’t finish off the game late.
The offensive rebounds killed them. Cleveland had 14 in total, with ‘Dre grabbing half of those.
The Knicks’ 13 turnovers were almost all deadly, with several unforced errors happening on the perimeter and leading to fast breaks. The Cavs ended up with 20 points in transition to New York’s 11.
The defense just wasn’t as crisp in the first half as it needed to be, giving up 57 points to a team that had no business scoring that many, Drummond or no Drummond.
It was just a sloppier game than it should have been. Hard fought, but sloppy.
On the bright side, Immanuel Quickley looked great and had a career high 23 points, RJ Barrett was mostly wonderful until the last few minutes of the game, Knox made both of his threes, Randle was his usually excellent self, and Noel gave the team some solid minutes, including six blocks.
Like the Thunder game, this was a reminder that the Knicks need to play really well to win, regardless of who the opponent is. They didn’t get it done, but giving the ball to RJ late and watching him learn from his mistakes is the sort of growing pain you can live with.
Jeremy and I recapped yesterday’s win, assessed where things stand after 14 games, and took a close look at what Victor Oladipo’s move to the Rockets could mean for the Knicks. Listen here or watch:
Happy Martin Luther King Day to everyone. I’m sure many of us are thankful for Dr. King for many reasons, but personally, I’m appreciative of the inspiration he provided, not only during the time he was alive but also since his tragic death. That inspiration outlives him in those whose lives he changed and who continue to make change and challenge us all. It is the reason I am a teacher today, and why (I hope) I can continue to convince young people to try and be the best version of themselves.
We still live in a world, and probably always have, where it is our natural instinct to hate, and to think less of, and to isolate, and to guard what it ours. Dr. King was loving and complimentary and open and giving. He wasn’t a perfect man because no one is, but boy did he get shit done when he had no business doing anything of the sort. No matter how motivated a person is, it’s impossible not to get down in the dumps at times and wallow in how hard it all is. That this flesh and blood human being never succumbed to this, despite having it harder than anyone, will never not astound me.
Today is also a day to remember how much further we have to go. I hope that if nothing else, everyone reading this can do some small thing today to make the world a little more like the one Dr. King envisioned it could someday be.
Every little bit counts.
That’s it for today! If you enjoy this newsletter and like baseball, don’t forget to subscribe for free to JB’s Metropolitan. See everyone tomorrow! #BlackLivesMatter