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Escape From LA
On Oscar night, New York got out of Hollywood in one piece, if barely.
Good morning! This weekend was almost a disastrous one for the Knicks, who remain in a virtual tie with the Nets for 5th place in the East, 3.5 games ahead of the Miami Heat. Much is up for grabs in the last dozen games, but the immediate future got a whole lot more manageable thanks to a “just get ‘er done” type win last night.
Game Recap: Knicks 112, Lakers 108
⌚️30 Seconds or Less: Not the most well-played game by any stretch, but one that the Knicks did just enough to come out with a W. Neither team ever led by more than 10 points, and while New York threatened to build a cushion a few times, LA always came back with a run to keep things close. The biggest of those swings came at the end of the third / beginning of the fourth quarter, when the Lakers answered a 7-0 Knick run with a 12-0 run of their own to go up three.
That’s when RJ Barrett cemented the second half as one of his best of the season, scoring or assisting on 16 of the next 21 points to give New York a 10-point lead with five minutes remaining. Things got a little hairy from there without Jalen Brunson to guide the ship into port, but they did just enough to escape Los Angeles with a victory to end a 3-game slide.
🌓🌗 Tale of Two Halves: Missing their starting point guard for the second straight game (and, according to Woj, likely on Tuesday against Portland as well), the Knicks were struggling for offense. They found it in the form of Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, although not nearly at the same time.
Right out of the gate, Julius had one of his patented scoring outbursts, scoring 14 consecutive points en route 18 in the first quarter alone. He always gets up to play the team that drafted him, and on the offensive end at least, this was no exception:
He had 25 at the half on 8-of-14 shooting, but went just 3-for-10 after halftime, including 1-of-7 from deep. Someone else needed to step up.
Enter RJ, who had 10 quiet points in the first half but got it going in the third and exploded in the fourth. This was arguably the most impressive showing Barrett has had since he returned from a finger injury two months ago, as there was no chance the Knicks were winning this game without his scoring punch in the second half. Not only was he driving to the rim relentlessly, but the variation of his moves and finishes to get buckets was top notch. More on him in a bit.
💪 Big-Time Bench: Since Jalen Brunson has gone out, I’ve wondered if his loss is as big an absence as any star in the NBA would be because of the chain of dominos it sets off. For one, there is his impact on Julius, which I’ll get to in a bit. It also forces Immanuel Quickley into a bigger role, which he has embraced admirably.
But perhaps the most underrated part of Brunson being injured is that it takes Immanuel Quickley out of the second unit. With no Jalen, it becomes even more imperative that the bench comes in and bring the noise for however long they have. That not only means high energy, but ball movement to generate good looks in the absence of the team’s top creators. All weekend in LA, both qualities stood out:
On Sunday against the Lakers, the bench foursome of Josh Hart, Isaiah Hartenstein, Deuce McBride and Obi Toppin played 85 total minutes and were a combined plus-42 in a game New York won by four. I’d have loved to give them all stars if I could.
They were nearly as good as a collective unit a day earlier, but an early fourth quarter drought kept their plus-minus totals slightly worse then even. Still, we saw some incredibly encouraging signs, like the activation of one Obi Toppin courtesy of newcomer Josh Hart:
Toppin didn’t quite do enough to earn a star, but he still had 19 points over both games. That doesn’t sound like much, but its the highest total Obi has scored in consecutive outings since end of January and the second highest since the middle of November.
If he gets going in a big way over the last dozen game and beyond, we may look back at this weekend as the catalyst.
About Saturday Afternoon: Knicks 95, Clippers 106
⌚️30 Seconds or Less: New York fought like hell from the opening tip, slogging their way to a 20-19 deficit after one and a 49-47 halftime lead. Thanks to some inspired play by IQ and the bench mob, things were looking pretty good until the very end of the third quarter, when Julius Randle lost his cool with the refs after he disagreed with some calls, and let out his frustration in the form of a technical and a near flagrant foul. Instead of being up, the Knicks trailed by two going into the fourth, and LA scored 11 of the first 15 points in the final period. It never got down to a two-possession game the rest of the way.
🏆You The Real MVP: 10 days ago, I argued that even amidst a crowded field, Jalen Brunson deserved serious consideration for some rogue 5th place MVP votes.
Looking back now, my argument completely missed the boat. I focused entirely on the point guard’s individual accolades and his impact on the team’s performance as a whole, but I missed perhaps the most important point of all: Brunson’s presence ensures that the very worst version of Julius Randle stays hidden.
On Saturday in LA, with Jalen in street clothes, we got a reminder of the painful cloud that shrouded last season’s Knicks.
Randle has spoken openly this season about how he needed to get right mentally after a very difficult year. It’s clear that the issue has not gone away, but rather has only gone into hibernation. What Saturday’s outburst left me wondering is whether the pressure of being “the guy” without Brunson is the largest contributing factor to Bad Julius coming out of hiding. Facing off against Kawhi, it wouldn’t surprise me if Randle felt he needed to be perfect for the Knicks to have a chance.
You could argue that we saw this mentality on full display in the second possession of the game, when he went one on one with Leonard, resulting in the sort of low percentage shot that we almost never see from this season’s Knicks - or at least not when Brunson is on the court to keep everyone in line:
Watching the game unfold as it did and seeing Randle finish with 19 points on 5-for-24 shooting - by far the worst percentage he’s shot in a game this season - I couldn’t help but wonder whether, in losing Brunson, we were actually losing our two best players at the same time. That’s obviously not the case every time, as Julius has had several strong games with Brunson out, including last night. That said, without his point guard to help rein him in, Randle’s risk of relapse is very, very real.
So yeah…Jalen Brunson: stealth MVP candidate in more ways than one.
🤕 Shooting Woes: Following the Kings loss, for the second game in a row, New York followed the same script against the Clippers that has led them to success all season. They only turned the ball over nine times. They got the free throw line 27 times, hitting 24. They dominated the glass 54 to 39, and for the first time in over five years, grabbed at least 20 offensive rebounds in consecutive regulation games.
Nailing all of the above is usually enough for the Knicks, and is a big part of why they sport a top-five offense despite being the 8th least efficient team in basketball.
But there are apparently limits to how inefficient even they can be, and we are starting to see those limitations. As Tom Piccolo pointed out after the Clippers game, the Knicks had the worst effective field goal percentage in the league during their three-game skid, with a wider gap between them and the 29th-ranked team than between the 29th and 15th ranked teams.
It’s just the latest twist in their roller coaster shooting ride this season. The key may lie in how well they shoot wide-open threes, which are supposed to be the lifeblood of any great offense.
Through the first 23 games, when the Knicks struggled to a 10-13 start, New York was 2nd to last in conversion rate of wide open threes at just 34.2 percent. Things didn’t get much better over the eight-game winning streak, when New York’s accuracy on wide-open threes actually went down to 33.7 percent, but starting with the five-game losing streak that followed, New York’s fortunes on wide-open threes began to turn around. They hit a scintillating 47.7 percent of their wide-open attempts from long range during those five consecutive L’s, and in the 26 games from the beginning of that losing streak to the Hart acquisition, the Knicks nailed 40.1 percent of their wide-open threes. Things went into overdrive with the nine straight wins, as New York hit 64-of-144 when they were wide open from downtown. That 44.4 percent conversion rate was top three in the league in that stretch.
Since then though, things have flipped for the worse. They hit just 28.3 percent of wide-open threes during the three straight losses, and while the stats haven’t yet updated to reflect last night, the eye test says the majority of their 37 attempts were great looks. Even so, they nailed just 11 for a conversion rate just under 30 percent. Could the players be putting extra pressure on themselves with Brunson out? Whatever it is, if this team doesn’t start hitting more of their open looks soon, they’re going to be in trouble.
💫 Stars of the Weekend 💫
⭐️ RJ Barrett: I can’t possibly put into words how difficult this ranking was. On my first pass, I had Deuce McBride as the three star player. After much antagonizing, I dropped him down to one, and began writing my obligatory “let me try and prove to you that I don’t hate RJ even though he’s not getting a star” paragraph. Here’s how it went:
Here’s how tough it was to parse out stars from these two games: the first honorable mention, RJ Barrett, could easily be our three-star player of the weekend. As I wrote above, there is precisely zero chance the win against the Lakers without him, and his overall play in the first 19 minutes of the second half was as impressive a stretch as I can remember this season. He showed you everything you could want and then some.
I then pulled a clip from yesterday’s game - one of a handful of outstanding forays into the paint for RJ - and realized that I was peddling in tomfoolery by not including this man among the honorees:
Here’s what got me: Barrett only gets this opportunity because Deuce (who is getting nudged to first honorable mention, right in front of Isaiah Hartenstein - another party who should be aggrieved by the exclusion) couldn’t do anything on this drive. Barrett can, and many times on Sunday night, did.
This is the eternal conundrum of Stars of the Game, and why it’s going to put me in an early grave. What should be graded more highly? Someone who is essentially perfect in their role, as McBride was on Sunday after he was damn good on Saturday, or someone who has the taller task of a hefty scoring load, but whose overall level of play was more lacking?
To be fair, even in what was mostly a Saturday stinker, RJ had some solid minutes in the third quarter on both ends. But the consistency was nowhere near McBride, who took his 23 total minutes of playing time and knocked them out of the park. I mean, watch how he gets back in this defensive possession after having to fly past Schroeder for the initial contest:
What an effort.
He followed it up by nailing a three at the other end, and followed up that possession by drawing an offensive foul - all in key fourth quarter minutes. Throw in three steals and you have yourself essentially the perfect Deuce game.
And I’m still giving the nod to RJ. His scoring was just too damn valuable.
If nothing else, my internal struggle should let you know the quality of play from our top two performers, neither of whom I seriously considered dropping out of the top three.
⭐️ ⭐️ Immanuel Quickley
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Josh Hart
Here’s a play from Saturday afternoon that exemplifies why Josh Hart and Immanuel Quickley are just magnets for positive play:
First, Hart: absolutely no hesitation on the pass to Grimes, who he knows needs to get the rock before Terrence Mann has time to recover out to the corner.
Second, Quick: he starts repositioning to the corner the moment that Grimes begins his dribble and the defense occupies itself with Quentin’s movement and not his.
There are literally dozens of moments like this throughout every game for both Hart and IQ - little nooks and crannies that lend themselves to the buttery goodness of winning basketball. It is no surprise that in 285 minutes together heading into last night, they had a plus-12.7 net rating - higher than any of the Knick duos who have shared the court for more time this season.
Of the two, Quick had the superior Saturday with 26, 10 & 4, but Hart one-upped him yesterday - not with stats (although 8, 8 & 4 for a guy with such little usage is damn impressive) but with head’s up plays, none more important than on New York’s final basket of the evening:
Aside from actually grabbing the rebound here, what a smart decision by Hart to immediately rifle the ball to RJ, who had gotten ahead of the pack. This gave the Knicks a 10-point lead that they would nearly blow, but with five seconds remaining and a two-point advantage, none other than Hart would step to the line and calmly convert both free throws.
Since the trade that brought him to New York, Isaiah Hartenstein is the only player in the NBA with a higher individual plus/minus than Josh Hart.
He’s been everything and everywhere for the Knicks, all at once.