Ending on a High Note

The Knicks weren't short on drama in their preseason finale, and it gave us some more info about what to expect moving forward.

Good morning Knicks fans! Are you ready for some real basketball? I hope so, because 48 hours from night now, that’s exactly what’s on the way. New York kicks off their season on Wednesday night against Boston in Madison Square Garden, and judging by the preseason, they seem as ready as they’ll ever be.

Below I’ll have a full recap of the final game they played - Friday’s rousing, come from behind win against the Wizards - as well as some final thoughts on the preseason as a whole, plus all the weekend’s news. Before that, if you’ve been waiting for the real games to begin to get a full subscription to the KFS Newsletter, you know what to do:

Reminder that Wednesday will also be the return of my halftime zooms, an exclusive benefit to our full subscribers. Come join in the fun!

Game Recap: Knicks 115, Wizards 113

⌚️ TL;DW: After coming out of the gate like molasses with just 15 first quarter points, the Knicks trailed by between six and a 19 until the final two minutes of the game. Despite having Bradley Beal for only nine minutes due to a knee contusion, Washington responded every time New York attempted to chip away at the lead, and probably would have run away with the game had it not been for several timely buckets from Derrick Rose. Finally, thanks to a 40-point fourth quarter that featured the small-ball alignment of Obi Toppin and Julius Randle, the Knicks closed the game on a 17-5 run, winning on a Randle fallaway jumper at the buzzer.

3 Takeaways

Everybody - Thibs, Julius, MSG…everybody - is in midseason form. The specifics of this one, including how and why the Knicks got down by so much and what worked for them in coming back, are secondary to the atmosphere that existed inside the arena for a game that didn’t count.

There is a spirit both within and surrounding this team right now that is difficult to describe. That spirit helped the whole be greater than the sum of its parts last year. Now, with even better parts, it’s hard not to be excited about where they can go from here.

This team is sticking to the game plan. Until the last six minutes of the game, New York couldn’t buy a bucket, going just 10-of-34 from long range and failing to get a big shot to fall every time it felt like they really needed one. It would have been easy to give in and divert course, but these Knicks seem intent on modernizing themselves, and they certainly have the personnel to do it. Thanks in part to a 5-for-8 finish from deep, New York ends the preseason as the only team in the league to attempt at least 40 threes per game and convert at least 38 percent of those looks.

So much for the narrative that Tom Thibodeau can’t embrace change.

The Knicks need to help Kemba Walker on defense. Despite pedestrian numbers in the three games he played - 10.0 points and 4.7 assists on a 39/29/100 slash line in 20.5 minutes a night - Walker is going to be a boon for New York’s offense. The Knicks ended the preseason as the league’s second best offense, and having a triple threat point guard on the floor at all times is a huge part of that. Thibs also admitted after the game that both Walker and Evan Fournier (averaging 9.8 points in 25.5 minutes on 35.5 percent overall and 30 percent from deep) may be playing a little bit too unselfishly. Both will find their place before too long.

On defense though, we got our first taste of the challenges that lie in store.

This was the first bucket in a two-minute stretch of the third that saw Raul Neto make five baskets. Walker, who finally fouled Neto and was removed from the game for good in favor of Derrick Rose, was the primary defender for every one.

It should be noted that Neto, while not a household name, plays like a bull in a china shop and is a particularly bad matchup for Walker. That said, this is something Tom Thibodeau is going to have to game plan around from this point forward. Maybe that means always pairing Kemba with Mitchell Robinson as an elite last line of defense, or perhaps it’s as simple as slotting Walker on the least threatening offensive player on the opposing team, as Atlanta did by hiding Trae Young on Reggie Bullock in last year’s playoffs. It is not an unfixable issue.

But it is an issue, and something worth monitoring moving forward.

Welcome Back!

Mitchell Robinson clearly was not yet in game shape (he was visibly winded towards the end of each of his stints of play). Thibs said afterwards that getting Mitch to where he needs to be “is going to take some time,” with Robinson himself adding that his conditioning “wasn’t that bad, but it was bad.1

Even so, there’s an element that Robinson brings at both ends that no one else on the Knicks can replicate. The reaction to his first bucket had seven months’ worth of frustration behind it:

It’s been a long time coming.

According to Stef Bondy of the New York Daily News, Taj Gibson acknowledged on Sunday that Robinson did indeed suffer a setback at some point as he made his way back from a broken foot. It wouldn’t be a surprise in the slightest to see him begin the regular season coming off the bench in favor of Taj as Nerlens Noel remains doubtful due to a knee issue. Once Noel is back to full health and Robinson gets his sea legs under him, it’s anyone’s guess as to who starts.

But there’s no question who raises New York’s ceiling the highest.

Once he’s feeling fully like himself, there’s no doubt Robinson converts this look. In the meantime, his length and athleticism remain an asset.

There will be bumps (like when Mitch attempted to kick it to Quentin Grimes in the corner early on in the fourth quarter, only to throw it into the outstretched arms of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, spurring a fast break) but he more than makes up for it in other ways (like when he stole it right back from KCP at the other end). The unpredictability of what you’re going to see from Robinson on any given possession is what makes him arguably New York’s most fascinating player, even entering year-four. Let the fun begin.

Defensive Play of the Game

Mr. Avdija, meet Mr. Barrett.

Washington would go on to tie the game after RJ’s block with 15 seconds remaining, but his ability to come up huge in the moment and help the Knicks maintain its momentum and three-point lead at the time was massive. Big things ahead for the 21-year-old.

💫 Stars of the Game 💫

⭐️ Obi Toppin: There were several contenders for this spot, but I wanted to throw a bone to Obi not only for this game but for his overall preseason performance, with per 36 minute averages of 17.8 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.9 steals and a team-leading 2.3 blocks.

That last number may prove to be the single most important statistical figure for the Knicks this year2. Toppin had three blocks in the final seven minutes of play on Friday night while playing alongside Julius Randle in New York’s small-ball alignment that we should probably find a new name for. Both RJ Barrett and Quentin Grimes are big enough to get spot minutes at the four with the way the league is going today, and both Randle and Obi look the part of a small-ball five.

But Randle-at-center lineups have always hemorrhaged points because he’s a non-entity as a rim protecter. Toppin may be a different story. As I’ll explore in depth tomorrow, a Randle/Toppin front court won’t always be able to get stops, but they should be able to succeed just enough to make this a real option for Tom Thibodeau.

⭐️ ⭐️ Julius Randle: Going into the fourth quarter, Randle was having one of the worst offensive games we’ve seen from him in some time, going 4-for-14 from the field and 0-of-5 from downtown for 10 points, with three turnovers to just one assist. He more than doubled his point total in the fourth quarter, the last two of which came in fairly dramatic fashion:

Randle’s continued development this season and over the next several years isn’t getting much attention from the fanbase, but it is utterly fascinating to me.

He is still 26 years old - arguably at the beginning of his prime. He has improved his game every season he’s been in the league, and now has a game that is in some ways wholly unique in the NBA today. He looks the part of a small-ball five, which is the role he played in New York’s fourth quarter comeback on Friday night. At the same time, his offensive repertoire is now almost entirely that of a wing.

This closest comp I can think of may seem ludicrous to some, but becomes more real with every additional magic moment, as noted by everyone’s favorite Knicks-supporting television critic:

If anything, Melo was more of a traditional four, what with his bullying down low and elite rebounding talent for a player of his size.

Julius, well…he’s just being Julius. And that’s something we should all be very, very happy about.

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Derrick Rose: We’re almost through the entire offseason and I’m not sure that I’ve put a truly hot take down on paper. Let’s go ahead and change that: Derrick Rose is in the conversation for being one of the top 15 point guards in the NBA.

Not counting guys like Luka and LeBron - wing initiators who might be two of the three best passers in the league, but who I’m putting into their own category here - the top nine “traditional” point guards include, in some order, Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, James Harden, Chris Paul, Trae Young, Mike Conley, De’Aaron Fox, Ja Morant and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

After that, we get into a conversation about guys like Jamal Murray, Kyle Lowry, Ben Simmons (I guess?), Jrue Holiday, Malcolm Brogdon, Fred VanVleet, and perhaps even our own Kemba Walker. Are we sure six of those guys are better than Derrick Rose? I’m not.

It’s only preseason, so take it for what it is, but Rose just played four games in which he put up 23 & 8 per 36 minutes while shooting 57 percent from downtown. That latter number might seem like a ridiculous result of small sample size theater, and while he’ll obviously come back down to earth, the 41 percent that Rose shot from deep as a Knick last season bodes well for the year ahead.

I mean, since when is the former MVP pulling up off the dribble in transition?

At the same time, Derrick Rose is still Derrick Rose, which means you’re getting half a dozen drives a game that make you recall his Chicago days of yore.

Seriously, how do you guard a guy with legit horizontal gravity who can also pull this out of his bag?

Defensively, Rose will never be a stopper, but seeing Kemba’s struggles on that end of the floor give me a new appreciation for Derrick’s size and stability.

So yeah, put him down in my top 15. And honestly, there are nights when he looks like a top 10 guy. Friday night, when he put up 28 & 6 and kept the Knicks in the game when they had absolutely nothing going, was one of them.

Not that we should be surprised.

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Final Thoughts

With the preseason in the books and opening night two days away, some larger observations about where things stand…

  • There is no question that the Knicks have a higher ceiling than they did last season. While the team’s fourth ranked +12.0 net rating should be taken with a grain of salt due to the level of competition, they showed off a flexible roster capable of beating opponents in a number of ways.

    Offensively, they can play big or small, and will likely always have four shooters on the court. More importantly, they’ll be able to deploy four players capable of making a play with the ball in their hands at all times. Defensively, last year’s M.O. of funneling ball handlers into the waiting clutches of Mitchell Robinson or Nerlens Noel should still be their bread and butter, but they also showed us some trapping schemes that may wind up being even more effective (more on that tomorrow).

    In a league where malleability is the name of the game, this is exactly where they want to be.

  • Quentin Grimes is going to play, and Kevin Knox probably isn’t.

    Grimes getting 21 minutes and an opportunity to close the game on Friday is far more notable than his final stat line (2-for-9, six points, six boards, two assists, two steals). Thibodeau noted after the game that Grimes’ perimeter defense made the Obi/Randle pairing more feasible, and offensively, he added some nice playmaking to the couple of huge shots he hit:

    If this team really is above having egos, it’s easy to see Thibs pivoting to Grimes whenever he feels he needs an injection of defense without sacrificing a knockdown shooter.

    Meanwhile, Knox got more than enough of an opportunity to show he’d progressed to that level of playability, and while his shot continued to look good, it remains the only part of his game that is above board.

  • We will know a lot about the Knicks after a month.

    Their first 16 games, from October 20 to November 20, feature only four matchups with teams that should be definitive favorites at full strength: two each against Milwaukee and Philadelphia, with one home game and one road game against each.

    The rest of the schedule is comprised of matchups with teams that figure to comprise the juicy middle of the NBA (Boston, at Chicago, at New Orleans, at Charlotte, and Indiana both home and on the road) and teams who should be bringing up the rear (Toronto, Cleveland, Cleveland, and a whopping three against the moribund Magic).

    10-6 would be more than acceptable, and even 9-7 would be fine. .500 or less would be cause for some concern. 11-5, 12-4 or better and we might need to start re-assessing what these Knicks are capable of after all.

    We’ll find out soon enough.

🗣 News & Notes ✍️

🏀 Nerlens Noel didn’t practice on Sunday and is doubtful for the opener. Everyone else should be good to go.

🏀 New York filled their remaining two-way spot by signing Luka Samanic, the 19th pick in the 2019 draft, just a few days after he was released by the Spurs.

Samanic was a massive disappointment in San Antonio, with just 138 points scored in 36 games over two seasons, but he’s the sort of second draft/upside pick that Scott Perry is known for (Henry Ellenson says hi).

Will he work out? Probably not. But he’s got real skill for his size and is as worthy of a flier as anyone the Knicks were going to get in this spot.

🏀 In addition to officially signing Samanic, the Knicks made their final roster moves on Saturday, and congratulations are in order for Wayne Selden Jr, who at the moment is the owner of New York’s 15th and final roster spot.

Selden beat out Brandon Goodwin (signed on Thursday), fellow Summer League participants Aamir Sims and MJ Walker, and former eighth overall pick Brandon Knight, who was signed earlier in the same day. For anyone wondering why the Knicks would sign guys like Goodwin and Knight only to waive them almost immediately, remember that the Exhibit 10 contracts those players inked allow New York to retain their G-League rights and pay them a little extra to play in Westchester.

As for Selden, while he never made it into a game, Thibs praised him on a few occasions throughout the preseason. One would think he keeps the energy level high in practice.

🏀 In non-Knicks news, Mikal Bridges agreed to a contract extension with the Phoenix Suns, inking a four-year, $90 million pact.

It’s probably unfair to characterize Bridges as merely a 3 & D player at this point, but even so, this is a reminder that the economics of the modern NBA very much make “No Bargains Allowed” just as fitting an acronym. For the Knicks, Bridges’ extension is probably below the floor for what we can expect on the impending extension due to RJ Barrett, who I’m guessing will demand the max.

That’s it for today! If you enjoy this newsletter and like the Mets, don’t forget to subscribe to JB’s Metropolitan. See everyone soon! #BlackLivesMatter

1

H/t Marc Berman for the quote.

2

Aside from games played, of course. Health at the point guard spot is still the most important factor for this team.