Getting Back on Track
Today we look at how the Knicks can score in a series where points have been hard to come by.
Good morning! Is it Friday yet? I hope the Knicks are making wise use of their time off, perhaps to think of some solutions against Cleveland’s defense. Today, I take a stab at identifying what’s gone wrong, and more importantly, how they can fix it.
Getting Back on Track
Going back and rewatching the tape of Game 2 - something I would not recommend any sane person do willingly - my biggest takeaway is that Tom Thibodeau and his coaching staff might actually be wizards.
On one hand the Knicks, as you may have heard, finished this season tied for the third best offense in the league and, thanks to the recent offensive explosion within the sport, the fifth best offense in recorded NBA history.
On the other hand, this is a team that does not pass, shoot, or dribble particularly well. That much has become evident through two games of this series, if it wasn’t already through 82 games.
Of course, we’re well versed in New York’s season-long formula by now, and no, black magic wasn’t involved. They have two very efficient engines in Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle, each of whom brings just enough outside shooting ability to allow them to dine on their bread & butter of interior scoring. They were buttressed by secondary creators Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett who aren’t that different from the top two bananas: shoot when necessary, but penetrate whenever possible. Those top four were the main ingredients for the formula, but the resulting product would be fairly flat without the necessary carbonation. In New York’s case, that’s ball control - i.e., offensive rebounds and low turnovers. Add in the free throws that come with so many rim attacks, and you get a 117.0 offensive rating despite not really having any of the tenets of a typically great modern NBA offense.
The question coming off of the regular season was whether this formula could translate into postseason effectiveness, not just against any opponent, but against the league’s top defense with oodles of time to prepare.
So far, the evidence isn’t great. The Knicks have the third lowest offensive rating in the postseason at 101.6 points per 100 possessions, a number that would rank dead last by a mile in the regular season (which, granted, is against many bad defenses that don’t prepare nearly as much).
That’s not the most troubling part though; it’s that a lot of what worked well for New York in the regular season is still working…and they still can’t score any points. So far in the postseason, no team is grabbing their own misses at a higher rate than the Knicks. They’re also one of just three teams with a free throw rate over 30 percent, so that’s two core parts of their offense that are going just fine.
As for the third tenet of their offensive success, no team is turning it over at a higher rate then New York, who are giving the ball away 18.1 percent of the time. Not great (Bob). But even that figure needs an asterisk because the Knicks are forcing Cleveland into the third highest turnover rate in the playoffs at 17.1 percent.
Even with the Cavs being just as careless with the ball, New York needs the turnover number to go down, not only because turnovers lead to points (duh) but because they’re emblematic of the main problem they’ve had, which is that they can’t get any of their initial dominos to fall and start the chain reactions their offense is built on.
In other words, the Cavs have stymied Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson to an unsettling degree, and rather than their ancillary pieces picking up the slack, they’ve either contributed to the downfall or been dragged down by it.
In retrospect, this initial shot by Julius on Tuesday night felt notable.
On one hand, it’s the sort of shot he’s largely eliminated from his diet this season, and is one of just five attempts he’s taken out of 40 in this series that weren’t in the paint or behind the arc. I think I get why he did it though. Julius sometimes takes these at the beginning of games to get comfortable - a way for him to remind himself and others that he has a bag full of tricks he can employ.
And when he tried to go into that bag, Evan Mobley largely stood his ground.
About two minutes later, Randle tried the same thing again, this time from the baseline. He made it, but Mobley again stayed sturdy and forced Randle into a high degree of difficulty shot.
For most of the rest of the game, Julius shot’s were almost exclusively of two varieties: from behind the arc, or attempting to bully his way into buckets directly under or around the hoop. The results were perfectly summed up by this sequence early in the third quarter:
Actually that’s not completely fair; Randle is 6-for-17 from deep in this series, which is right at his season average for makes and attempts. The difference is that, even with the high volume, Julius used his deep ball in the regular season to set up his preferred method of attack inside the arc, and from there, he’s just 9-of-23 in the series. He also isn’t getting to the line, shooting seven free throws through two games, hitting five.
Add it all up, and Randle is averaging about one point per shot attempt, which is well below his non-garbage time regular season average of 1.18 per attempt. That’s only part of the problem though; Cleveland is limiting him to this paltry total through single coverage, usually with Mobley.
The hope at this point has to be that Randle will be better around the rim once his ankle gets a little better and he continues to get his conditioning back. We’ll see…and hope. Another solution is to use Julius as a screener for Brunson and then get the ball to him in space. The Knicks have done this a bit, but then you’re relying on Randle to make good, quick decisions. Through two games, he has five assists and 11 turnovers.
Even so, I have faith Randle will improve and get more comfortable. New York has a 112.8 non-garbage time offensive rating in 94 possessions with both Brunson and Randle on the court, which is a middling regular season number but passable in this rock fight. But this just leads to the next issue, which is that the Cavs are fully exploiting the weak spots in New York’s starting five.
Mitchell Robinson, to his credit, has been a force defensively, and was a big reason the Cavs scored just 25 points through nearly 15 minutes in Game 2.
His offense has been a different story. The most obvious story told by the on/off numbers is that New York can’t score when Brunson sits (112.7 offensive rating with JB on; 77.8 with him off), but Robinson is a co-author on that tale:
Brunson with Mitch: 84.4 points per 100 in 64 non-garbage time possessions
Brunson w/out Mitch: 151.7 points per 100 in 58 non-garbage time possessions
It’s always risky to glean too much info from super small sample sizes, especially when there may be another obvious culprit (we’re getting there), but these Mitch numbers more than match the eye test.
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