The Kings dominated. How and why are what's important.
It isn’t often that I finish watching a Knicks game and say to myself “Boy, I really wish I could have had those two and a half hours back.”
That’s because when you’ve subsisted on a steady diet of disappointment for two decades, you learn pretty quickly how to appreciate and digest the little things as a way to survive. If there’s a ray of sunshine amidst the darkness, I’ll usually be able to find it.
Last night was one of the exceptions. There was really very little to be genuinely happy about, save for a few moments from New York’s two young building blocks in the 3rd quarter. Those made me smile, albeit briefly. It still wasn’t enough to stop me from wishing I could snap my fingers, go back to 6 pm, get in my car, and see The Irishman, the new Martin Scorsese triumph that premiered in New York this weekend and that I’ve been more eagerly anticipating more than any film this year.
As I woke up this morning thinking about what could have been, and trying to figure out what the hell we just witnessed and how to reconcile it with New York’s A+ effort in Boston on Friday night, I was reminded of another collaboration between my two favorite actors, Bobby and Al…a little ditty from 1995 called Heat.
Specifically, I thought of the storyline involving the convict turned fry cook Donald, portrayed by former 24 President and current Allstate pitchman Dennis Haysbert.
In the movie, at the urging of his faithful partner Lillian, Donald the ex-con tries to play it straight. He gets a demeaning job that’s beneath him, doing janitorial work and taking crap from a shitheal of a boss, all in an effort to put his life back together. After he gets promoted to flipping burgers, we think he’s going to make it, until his old bank robbin’ buddy Robert De Niro walks into his restaurant desperately needing a driver for an armed robbery. A few hours later, poor Donald is riddled with bullet holes, as we see Lillian watching the news of his death on TV with the look of shock and disappointment on her face.
I saw the same look last night, except it was on the face of Knicks head coach David Fizdale. On Friday night, his New York Knicks did their best to play it straight. They moved the ball and made the extra pass. Even when it didn’t result in a basket, they still committed to defending with urgency. They were completely and totally unselfish on both ends of the floor.
It was, in my estimation, the best the team has looked in years. Of course they’ve had nights with more fruitful results, but from a process standpoint, it’s been a long time since they played better, even with a 39/36/66 slash line that made beating a team like the Celtics on the road damn near impossible. It left me excited to see how they’d respond at home to a Kings team that could be had with a similar effort.
And then Bobby Effin’ Dee walked into the Garden, and a few hours later, the Knicks were having a closed casket funeral. Poor Fiz, watching the disemboweling unfold before him, said it best in postgame:
You could see it happening in real time. With every additional Kings made three in the first quarter, the ball would stick just a little bit more on the other end, and when it (unsurprisingly) didn’t go in, the effort on defense would wane that much more. It’s that type of vicious cycle that can lead to being down 30 to a 1-5 team on your home floor.
As for deeper conclusions to draw from this one, let’s get to the categories…
One Big Thing
The Knicks need a point guard (duh)
I think it was on John Schmeelk’s Bank Shot Podcast in July that I first said Dennis Smith Jr. would be the swing player who would determine this Knicks’ season.
If he made a leap and showed a more consistent version of the tantalizing talent we’d seen over two years, I thought there was a universe where New York could approach 40 wins. If he stagnated or regressed, I didn’t think a win total in the low 20’s was out of the question.
My reasoning was simple: the threat of dribble penetration is the most dangerous weapon in the game today. For every beautiful offensive possession Knick fans might see employed by other teams, somewhere in the mix is a defender that’s affected by the threat of a guard who can get to the rim if said defender isn’t not careful. The dominoes fall from there.
Yes, the Knicks’ offense was stuck in the mud last night, but that selfish and stagnant play is born of the fact that guys know easy buckets are not going to come their way because New York currently does not employ a player who can put a defense on skates and start the chain reaction that leads to open looks.
(The fact that the Knicks have missed their fair share of open looks isn’t helping either, but that’s what happens when you’re pressing like they are right now)
This is the same reason I understood the signing of Elfrid Payton, because if Smith Jr. faltered, Payton could offer at least the reasonable facsimile of a guard who can get into the teeth of a defense and make the right pass when it’s there. Sure enough, the Knicks have had a 112.4 offensive rating with Elf on the floor this year. When he’s off? 93.4. Yeesh.
Without either DSJ or Payton at the point of attack, the Knicks have resorted to moving the offense through Julius Randle, who is clearly in the Sunken Place right now, trying to find the proper balance between being the distributor this team needs him to be and the bull in a China shop he’s always been.
RJ has tried his best to steer the ship, God bless his 19-year-old heart, but we’ve seen that for as mature as his game is, he’s not yet ready to the offensive fulcrum (although we might be to that point sooner than we think).
And then there’s Frank. On a different team, with a more balanced roster, his deficiencies wouldn’t stick out like such a sore thumb, and we’d just be able to focus on all of the benefits. Unfortunately for right now, what he isn’t doing stands out more than what he is.
(and even for all that he’s lacking on offense, I don’t think it was an accident that this was a two-point game when he exited with two fouls in the first quarter, and the game immediately got away from them when he went to the bench.)
I say all this to point out that for as much as people want to blame the coach for a lack of creativity or inability to get his guys properly fired up to do the little things that lead to winning games, in actuality, the culprit may be elsewhere, and not nearly as easy to solve as getting a new guy in a suit calling different plays for the same group of pieces that have no engine to get the car moving.
I don’t care about RJ Barrett’s minutes (at least not yet)
I’m sorry. I know this is the hot button issue of the day, because it’s 2019, and how in the world can a coach be so irresponsible as to flippantly ignore the benefits of load management in favor of “He’s 19!”
I get it. And I still don’t care.
The fact is, RJ Barrett is actually 19 years old, and he’s built like a mack truck. The Knicks’ doctors seem to think this is fine, and they have more medical degrees than I do, and probably you too.
Asked about his rising minutes totals after the game last night, and his response was telling:
Will he hit a rookie wall at some point? Of course. And there will be nights that playing him in meaningless garbage time will likely equate to diminishing returns.
But for right now, with the team desperate to figure out how to fit the right pieces together, every minute is valuable. Ultimately, this issue stands side by side with why New York brought in all these vets this summer: they need to get some good vibes flowing through this organization, get some wins, and avoid all of the conversation that’s happening around a 1-6 team literally right this second.
Maybe a particular lineup featuring RJ late last night clicks and provides an answer, any answer, to turn the ship around. You either think playing him five or eight or 10 or whatever extra minutes is worth that potential discovery or it’s not. I think it’s worth it.
Stat of the Night
This isn’t a stat from last night, but a yearlong statistic that is emblematic of the problems this team has generating any kind of consistent offense.
37.5 is the Knicks’ field goal percentage on shots taken on drives to the rim. It is the lowest in the league by two full percentage points, and more than 20 percentage points lower than the first place team, the Houston Rockets, who not coincidentally employ two of maybe the best ten rim-attackers of all time.
The companion statistic here is 2.6, which is the average assists per game the Knicks are getting on drives, which is also dead last.
What the Knicks are not doing because they don’t have the personnel to do it is, in a bit of sad irony, the style of offense that Fizdale desperately wants to run. He tried to squeeze a square peg into round hoop last year with the likes of Emmanuel Mudiay and Trey Burke, and even with those lesser lights, the Knicks were 14th in drives per game (this year they’re 22nd)
When you don’t have elite shooters to space the floor (the Knicks’ only one, Wayne Ellington, is currently slumping) and no one with an elite handle or burst, these are the types of numbers you’re left with.
Made Me Smile
RJ Barrett, giving a shit
If you blinked you might have missed it, but there he was in the 3rd quarter of a game already decided, scoring 12 points over an eight minute stretch and providing maybe the only true highlight of the night with this dish to Mitchell Robinson:
Credit also to Mitch, who came in the 3rd quarter and defended like it was a tie game. Moving him to the bench was not the answer.
I’ve said it a bunch and I’ll say it again: regardless of what else happens this year, if these two guys come out of it feeling like this is an organization they can thrive in long term, and are willing to continue to shoulder that burden, I don’t care about much else that happens this season.
I know the sky is falling, and nothing is good, and everything is bad, and it will always be bad, and everyone is crappy and no one is trying and Fiz is an idiot and-
It’s been seven games. Before last night, 5.5 of the previous 6 have been downright respectable. And then the team let go of the rope last night, perhaps frustrated that their efforts had thus far failed to produce more than a single win.
I maintain that I want to see where this thing is at after 20 games, with a backcourt that hasn’t been decimated by injury and whatever the hell happened with DSJ.
Maybe you’re ready to jump ship, but there’s been too many encouraging signs for me to sound the alarm just yet.
But if ever a team needed to come out with an otherworldly effort on the road in an early season game, it’s these Knicks on Wednesday at Detroit.
Let’s see what happens.
New podcast alert:
Jeremy and I do our best to digest last night’s game, and go Buy or Sell on all the storylines we’ll see for the next 48 hours.