Extasy & Agony
After a pretty perfect Friday evening, the Knicks end the weekend on a down note.
Good Morning, and an even better morning to those of you who had the good fortune of missing last night’s game. Yeesh. Lot’s to get into there, mostly bad, but we’ll cover both weekend games today, with the emphasis on Friday night, and then save the larger dissection of yesterday’s mess for tomorrow.
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Friday - Knicks 121, Magic 96
⌚️ TL;DW: The Knicks went into Orlando with a vengeance, taking a close game and blowing it open between the mid-first and mid-second quarters. The game never got closer than 16 points in the second half, and while New York has to be commended for its effort after a double OT marathon, the paucity of talent and effort on the Magic (the latter of which would rebound in a big way last night) contributed greatly to the final result.
Sunday - Knicks 104, Magic 110
⌚️ TL;DW: You play with fire, you’re gonna get burned. The Knicks didn’t come out with the requisite amount of effort against a team they’d embarrassed just 48 hours earlier, and that set the tone for the entire game. Combine that with a few too many iso’s and an off night shooting from deep, and neither a 13-point first half lead nor a six-point advantage after the third quarter ever felt safe. Thanks to the flame-throwing Terrence Ross and his 22 fourth quarter points (just two less than the entire Knicks team), New York has its first loss of the season.
3 Takeaways from the Weekend
⓵ The Knicks are living and dying by the three. In their first three games, New York has attempted an absurd 49.0 attempted threes per game, which would be a new NBA record and is tops in the league at the moment. Their overall percentage of 36.7 is right about league average, but it has been feast or famine thus far. In the first two games, the Knicks hit 41.4 percent from downtown. Last night, it was just 27.9 percent, and if you we take away Derrick Rose’s 5-for-8 showing, the number drops to 20 percent.
⓶ New York’s offense is better, but still has the same bugaboos. Things were pretty simple last season: give the ball to Randle and everyone else would react appropriately. The results were fine, but not above regular droughts, which usually coincided with a lack of ball movement. This year’s edition is far less reliant on their best player thanks to an injection of talent, but we’ve still seen extended stretches of stagnant play, none more so than last night.
⓷ The Knicks avoided disaster. For as frustrating as last night was, it could have been ten times worse had a scary fall by Mitchell Robinson turned out to be serious. Mitch went down hard in the third quarter, and while he could put some weight on his leg as he was being helped off, went directly back to the locker room for treatment. A few minutes later, he was back on the bench, and shortly thereafter, reinserted into the game. As we’ll discuss soon. his impact can’t be overstated, so this was indeed a crisis averted.
On Friday night, in addition to setting a team record for most threes made (24) and attempted (54), as well as getting at least 34 assistsfor only the sixth time in the last 23 seasons, New York became just the sixth team ever to hit at least 24 threes, dish 34 dimes and commit 11 or fewer turnovers in a single game according to Basketball Reference. That was fun! Not to be outdone, last night the Knicks attempted 48 3-pointers, which is tied for the second most threes attempted (after Friday’s game) in a regulation game for the franchise.
They Said It:
If there was one topic of the weekend, it was effort. The Magic didn’t have it in their home opener…
…just like the Celtics didn’t have it coming off their double OT marathon at the Garden….
…and last night, it was the Knicks turn to come up short:
The common thread? It’s early in the season, and guys are still working their way into midseason form.
That said, with all due respect to both Thibs and Julius, while the Knicks didn’t come out with their usual pants-on-fire brand of aggression on defense, last night was by no means a no-show. They played hard, just not as hard as they could have. For a Tom Thibodeau team though, that means they might as well not have given any effort whatsoever. There was no middle ground with this team last season, and that’s why they so vastly outperformed expectations. Hopefully Sunday was a wake-up call that anything less than the max and this team can find itself in a dogfight on any given night.
Key Stretch - Friday
Thanks to some early threes by their two-headed center, Friday night was actually close early, with the Knicks only up 20-16.
Then, as if they were Dolph Lundgren and Tom Thibodeau yelled something incomprehensible in Russian from the sideline, New York turned the exhibition into a bloodbath. The Knicks went on a 16-0 run to end the first quarter, and that began a 36-9 spurt which put the game out of reach.
The most fun play during this stretch came when RJ Barrett inadvertently got in the way of a Kemba-to-Obi alley-oop, failing to remember that his teammate puts jet fuel in his Wheaties every morning:
(I’ll sing more of Obi’s praises in a bit, but suffice it to say that there aren’t many players in the league who can pull off a scoop finish like this while falling out of bounds. Of all his strong qualities, coordination might top the list. More on this in a bit.)
For as great as that was though, my favorite play of the run, and maybe the single play that best exemplifies the effect Tom Thibodeau has had on this organization, came a few minutes earlier:
Here is Derrick Rose, a man has won an MVP and been to a conference finals. He will probably find his way into the Hall of Fame someday. If there is a single player on this roster who can take a defensive possession off in a game like this, it is him.
And yet here he is, digging, hedging, showing and selling out on the possession like it’s a playoff game. Thanks to his effort, Cole Anthony had happy feet in the corner and stepped out of bounds, giving the Knicks the ball.
As we saw with Sunday’s result, New York must play with that level of urgency every possession of every game if they want to continue to prove the doubters wrong.
Key Play - Sunday
Despite the poor shooting and merely adequate effort, the Knicks had battled back from the early fourth quarter onslaught by Terrence Ross and made it a three-point game on a Derrick Rose driving layup. After giving up a 15-0 run to the Magic between the late third and early fourth quarters, New York was suddenly right back in it.
On Orlando’s net trip down the court, the Magic went back to the well again, getting the ball to Ross behind the arc coming off a screen. RJ Barrett battled and seemed to give a nice contest, but was called for the foul. Ross sank all three freebies and the Knicks never got it down to a one-possession game the rest of the way.
Doghouse (not Dawghouse)
One game after seven Knicks made multiple three pointers, the shooting numbers from behind the arc were dreadful across the board on Sunday night:
Julius Randle: 2-for-10
RJ Barrett: 1-for-7
Evan Fournier: 2-for-7
Alec Burks: 1-for-6
Obi Toppin: 0-for-3
We can use the “it’s just one night” excuse for everyone except RJ, who went 0-for-5 on Friday and as the lone Knick regular not to get in on the 3-point barrage. Cause for concern? No, especially since we’ve seen him persevere through slumps before. Hopefully this current one doesn’t last too long though; RJ’s floor spacing has arguably become the most important part of his game. He’s gotten open looks; he just needs to convert.
Macri, you have to be a little worried about…
Kemba Walker? Not yet, although there’s a reason Thibodeau once again closed a close game with Derrick Rose. Right now, Rose just looks better - as a 3-point shooter, as a defender, as a facilitator of the offense, and as a driver.
Still, I’m more than happy to give Walker all the time he needs to get adjusted, especially since he’s making adjustments on multiple fronts. First, Kemba is learning how to be the third or fourth guy on the totem poll, which wasn’t ever something he needed to deal with until last season. Second, he’s figuring out what he can and can’t do with his current physical limitations (maybe the knee is fine and he’s just playing a little hesitant, but we all remember peak Kemba Walker, and this certainly isn’t it).
That doesn’t mean he’s not going to help this team immensely. He is. But getting to that point may not be quite as seamless as some originally anticipated.
💫 Stars of the Weekend 💫
⭐️ Obi Toppin: Now we’re having some fun.
Obi Toppin is not all the way there yet. Look no further than the second half of Sunday’s game for proof of that, when he was beaten on a few defensive possessions and wasn’t able to have the same impact in transition in the previous two games (credit to the Magic for that).
That said, Toppin was arguably the most enticing Knick through those first two games, in which he logged 28 minutes, 23 seconds and 23 minutes, 21 seconds, respectively. His two highest minute totals all of last season were 26:17 and 23:33, with everything else coming in at under 20 minutes. Last night, with a healthy Taj Gibson back and playing behind Mitch, it went down to a dozen (although we should note that Thibs briefly went small with Obi and Julius together after Mitch got hurt - a lineup that was exposed on defense by the Magic’s size and which the Knicks couldn’t take advantage of on offense like they had previously).
All this is to say, when opportunity has knocked this season, Obi has opened the door, for the most part, thus far.
I said during Friday’s halftime Zoom that while Toppin might already be an above-average team defender, I thought he might continue to struggle when switched one-on-one against guards and speedier wings. So much for that shitty take.
The one moment of struggle he’s had - trying to contest a driving, 7-foot Moe Wagner at the rim last night, only to get yammed on - is nothing to be ashamed of. On the whole though, Toppin’s defense through the early going has been nothing short of a revelation. There are times when his movement reminds me of a ballet dancer, with graceful glides across and around the floor, and other times when a boxer comes to mind, with bobs and weaves that leave his opponent unprepared for the coming jab.
We saw his movement and coordination on full display in the steal that proceeded the highlight of the night…
…and then again yesterday when he somehow saved a pass that was going out of bounds, helping Alec Burks get the hoop and the harm:
Toppin’s emergence as a difference-making player (to say nothing of a potentially versatile one where positional flexibility is concerned) could be the most significant development for the organization this season. That’s how much potential he oozes.
⭐️ ⭐️ Derrick Rose: Among the 92 players who were averaging at least five 3-point attempts per game as of last night, Derrick Rose’s 58.8 conversion rate from downtown ranked 5th in the NBA. Talk about changing your game late in a career.
I don’t have much to say about Rose that hasn’t already been said, so I’ll just repeat something I’ve written many times before: without him, the Knicks would have never had a chance last night. His back to back threes midway through the fourth kept the life support machine on, and his dime to Mitch earlier in the game shows just how well he can still get easy looks for his teammates:
Where would the Knicks be without Derrick? I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Mitchell Robinson: Have I mentioned how good it is to have this guy back?
There’s still work to be done (positioning on screens matter, big guy!) but the way he casually moved the 7-foot, 230-pond Mo Bamba aside like a crash test dummy and then perfectly times his leap for the one-touch putback is a reminder of the value he can offer this team.
If ever there was a doubt as to how vital Robinson is to this game, those doubts were answered last night. The Magic, exposing New York’s small-ball alignment for the first time this season, caught the Knicks with several breakdowns when Robinson wasn’t in the game. Never was that clearer than when Mitch checked out of the game late in the third. New York was up 80-71. When he returned three minutes later, they were losing 86-80.
I’ll have much more on Mitch coming tomorrow, but here was my favorite play from among several contenders last night:
The finish is hellfire from the heavens, but I love how Mitch’s mere presence helps contribute to the turnover that instigated the fast break to begin with (and this wasn’t even one of the three blocks or two steals he had on Sunday).
The best part is that his conditioning still isn’t anywhere close to what it’ll be in a few weeks. Check out this double offensive rebound - two of 13 he’s had so far this season, which is nearly tops in the league - and what happens afterwards:
Granted, Mitch falls to the floor more than any player I’ve ever seen, but he was positively gassed. He had his hands on his knees a few times in the minute or so after this, and couldn’t quite make it out to the perimeter in time to block a Cole Anthony 3-pointer that he would have sent into the eighth row if he was in normal shape. Still, he never dogged it in this game, not once, and his presence on both ends continued to be a boon to New York’s efforts.
Would it be nice to be sitting at 3-0 right now? Yeah, it would. Can the Knicks afford too many more losses to teams in the bottom tier of the NBA, what with so many teams making real cases for playoff positioning? No, not really.
On the whole though, through three games, and the product is about all we could have expected. The team has fully embraced the modern NBA. The defense, while not without kinks, looks like it will again be a strength. Mitchell Robinson and Obi Toppin have improved, and Julius Randle has not regressed. Most of all, the chemistry that was fostered last year seems to be in place once again.
In other words, they should be fine (and even better if they use last night as a wakeup call).