Santa delivered the Knicks a win, and with it, the beginnings of something they've been searching all season for.
Good morning! Firstly, I hope your holiday weekend was wonderful. For those wondering, yes, Santa did indeed visit the Macri household, and apparently he shops at the KFS factory store. Gotta love the big guy’s taste in merch.
Second, a quick announcement that I’m going to be taking a bit of a break this week to spend some much needed time with the family while school’s out. You’ll still be getting five newsletters and full game recaps on Wednesday and Thursday, but tomorrow’s and Friday’s emails will be more abbreviated than normal, and will feature this week’s two entries (No’s 43 & 42) on the #NYK75, plus game previews and any news & notes.
Finally, as we always remind those who don’t have a full subscription every Monday, there’s no better time to change that than right now:
Let’s unwrap some presents…
Game Recap: Knicks 101, Hawks 87
Playing in front of a national television audience as families across the country were beginning their Christmas festivities, the Knicks had one of their more feel-good games of the year. Even though it was a matchup with a Hawks team missing its primary engine in Trae Young and a few other rotation pieces, this felt like a quality win, both because of the cohesiveness with which they played on offense and where that cohesiveness was generated from. Once again, Kemba Walker largely ran the show, Julius Randle fed off of that energy, and everyone else followed suit with one of the best shooting displays of the year. There was coal no coal to be found in anyone’s stocking by the end of this one, as things appear to be looking up heading into the new year.
⓵ Synergy? Maybe??? Once upon a time, Leon Rose approached the summer of 2021 with a novel idea:
I have a pretty good player on my hands, but I just watched him shit the bed over five playoff games. It would be super cool if I got him some more help…perhaps a guard who can not only create his own quality looks, but get my best player easier shots as well? Boy wouldn’t that be nice…
After an OKC buyout, Kemba Walker arrived at the Garden with the intention of making Leon’s dream come true, but within a month, it all went to hell. As I mentioned a week ago, Walker and Randle almost never had good games at the same time when they were in the lineup together. On Sunday though, they most certainly did, with Walker notching the first ever Christmas triple double for a Knick, and Randle scoring 25 points on 15 shots. The start of something big, perhaps?
⓶ The Knicks continue to live by the three. New York put up 50 shots from deep on Christmas, which was the second most in a regulation game in their history, trailing only this season’s second game in Orlando. They made 20, giving them an 11-3 record in their 14 best shooting outings from long range this season. They’re 4-15 in the other games.
⓷ The defense still has its (bad) moments. The only sore spot on Sunday in an otherwise solid defensive effort was the breakdowns New York suffered in allowing more than a few open threes. Atlanta hit five in the second quarter and what should have been an early blowout ended up being competitive into the fourth. As usual, miscommunication was the culprit:
For as much as Walker’s reemergence has given the team a shot in the arm, if they don’t sort this stuff out, nothing else will matter (see: the Washington game).
The Knicks welcomed back two more rotation players, with RJ Barrett getting the start, Quentin Grimes playing a pivotal role, and Kevin Knox available but not active. Barrett, perhaps predictably, looked rusty, hitting just 4-of-15 overall and 1-of-8 from deep.
Even so, it was good to see him back out there, and it was a reminder that the Knicks don’t really have another big-bodied driver of the basketball who can provide consistently solid put-back opportunities when he misses those close looks:
On that note, an interesting stat that may give Thibs some reason to run RJ even more with the second unit: when Barrett doesn’t play with Julius Randle, the resulting Knicks lineups are in the 100th percentile league wide in both offensive rebound rate and put-back points per miss according to Cleaning the Glass.
He also had the game’s most fun moment, mimicking Obi Toppin mid-eastbay for the exclamation point on the W:
Things are as bunched up as they can be in the middle of the East right now:
This is why the Wizards game was an absolute shame…had New York won, they’d be 16-17 and in a three-way tie with Boston and Washington for eighth, just a game back of Philly for sixth. Alas…
💫 Stars of the Game 💫
⭐️ Quentin Grimes: Mitchell Robinson has a clear case here. He was engaged on both ends from the opening tip, and even though the only box score stat that popped was his five blocks, his impact on the game was clearly felt throughout his 30 minutes.
But I’m putting my foot down and giving it to Grimes instead. Part of it is because I’m getting tired of rewarding Robinson anytime he looks remotely interested in really competing on a particular day, but mostly it’s because Grimes was that impressive.
Not that you could tell from the box score…he was just 5-of-14 overall for 15 points. But he has the quickest trigger on the team, and as a result, he now has a dozen 3-pointers over his last two games. It won’t take long for him to appear on opposing scouting reports when he’s locked and loaded like he was Sunday:
Among nearly 400 players who have played at least 100 minutes this season, Grimes’ 11.0 threes attempted per 36 minutes ranks eighth. His place in the rotation would seem to be secure.
⭐️ ⭐️ Julius Randle: Before their loss against the Wizards pissed me off so thoroughly and I scrapped my initial column idea for an airing of grievances, I was going to do a bit about the one Christmas present I’d leave for each Knick under their tree. For Julius, it was going to be giving him back his midrange ability from last season.
That’s because if there’s one thing that’s been differentiating Julius from the version we saw last year, it is his drop off in this areas. By hitting just 32 percent of his shots from the long midrange this season, Randle ranks in the 46th percentile for his position according to Cleaning the Glass - a steep drop from the 75th percentile he occupied last year.
Some other numbers paint his struggles in an even more damning light. For example, 51 players have taken at least 35 jumpers from between 16 and 24 feet this season. With a conversion rate of 31.9 from that distance, Randle ranks 49th in that group. It’s worse from 8 to 16 feet, where 16 players have attempted at least 100 shots, and Randle is dead last with a 34.3 percent rate of accuracy.
So why am I bringing all this up as I hand Julius his two stars? Because, being the hopefully naive SOB that I am, I think we may be on the verge of a turnaround.
One game after Randle was 3-of-6 from the short midrange (between eight and 16 feet), he went 3-of-5 on long twos (more than 16 feet) yesterday. In total, he’s 50 percent from both areas over the last two games, which is the smallest of small sample sizes, but when you’ve been as bad as Randle, any sign of hope, however tiny, is a good one.
After the game, Randle spoke revealingly about both his and the team’s approach since Kemba has been back: “When he is attacking and aggressive, I feed off of it and we all feed off of it.” Just as notably, he mentioned playing “freely” and “with no agenda.” Randle, perhaps without realizing it, summed up New York’s season in a nutshell, as no one has played more freely all season than…
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Kemba Walker, who since his return to the rotation is averaging 26 points, seven assists and just one turnover per game on a 53.1 effective field goal percentage - the only player in the league putting up such a stat line in that time.
At this point, it has become painfully obvious that early in the season, both Randle and Walker were each trying to accommodate the other, and in doing so, lost their ability to be consistently effective at the things that made them good players in the first place. Faced with the prospect of staying patient or making a change, Tom Thibodeau decided enough was enough. Wondering whether Walker was demoted partially for contractual or political reasons is fair, but it also ignores that the move was about more than individual struggles. Julius and Kemba were both No. 1’s, and in Thibs’ eyes, the math didn’t add up.
Except Thibodeau’s beheading didn’t work. Randle, who had a negative 5.3 net rating before Walker was demoted, had a negative 12.0 net rating in the 10 games Kemba sat on the bench. Now, in the last four games, the Knicks have outscored their opponents by 7.8 points per 100 possessions in Randle’s 149 minutes. The competition has been poor, but again, progress is progress.
As for Walker, the Knicks have outscored the Celtics, Pistons, Wizards and Hawks by 37 points when he’s been on the court. That figure is 22nd in the league over the last four games and tops on the Knicks. He is one good game against the Timberwolves from winning the Eastern Conference Player of the Week award, at which point his benching at the hands of Thibs will officially become the top talking point for the national media.
As it should, especially with moments like this, when Walker pulled out the John Wick on poor Skylar Mays:
Back? Yeah, I’m thinking he’s back.
In fairness, Walker wasn’t doing this stuff on the regular in the first half of the season, and even since his return, he’s only shooting 43 percent from inside the arc. That, along with the complete lack of synergy between he and Randle, plus the defensive issues Kemba still presents, had most of us celebrating Thibodeau’s harsh decision (even if we did recognize that Randle was getting an undeserved pass).
Where Thibs miscalculated, and what’s becoming evident now, is that having a true point guard to start games is kind of important. For as much as Alec Burks has his moments as a secondary ball handler, there’s a reason he’s a career backup who hasn’t been relied upon to run a first team offense. It’s also the coach’s job to put his players in the best position to be successful, and in this case, that meant convincing both Kemba and Julius to stop worrying about being a good teammate and just fucking ball. Whether what we’re seeing now is his doing or not, he certainly didn’t get the message through to start the year.
The best part of the Walker renaissance is that even though it seems like a lot of my turn/your turn, there are signs that the rising tide is lifting all ships. The Knicks had their second highest assist total of the season on Saturday, and while it helps when you’re hitting your threes, it also helps when you’re taking those threes within the rhythm of the offense:
As Ben Ritholtz details further in the rest of this excellent thread, there were several plays Walker didn’t get credited with an assist that were nonetheless great looks as a result of his playmaking. It’s why, unlike Russell Westbrook’s disaster later that night, there was nothing illegitimate about Walker’s triple double. His fingerprints were all over this game in an immensely positive way.
All with Thibodeau watching from the sidelines. Walker did his best to downplay any potential firestorm after the game by calling the benching a “blessing in disguise,” while also admitting that earlier in the season, he “wasn’t as aggressive as I could have been.” That’s all well and good. We also heard from Ian Begley, who reported that some Knicks thought the benching revealed inconsistency in the decision-making process that led to the move. All in all, it’s fair to say that there is still some healing that needs to happen as the staff and roster move forward with Kemba back for good.
And make no mistake about it: he is not going anywhere. Unless and until the Knicks fall out of the playoff race, Thibodeau will continue to try and give the team the best chance to win games, and as he said before Sunday’s matchup, that means continuing to ride Walker. Even though his re-emergence doesn’t really change their ceiling this season, the hope is that this story can still have a happy ending, and the 10 games he sat out would become nothing more than a footnote in an otherwise successful season, perhaps even with some playoff basketball. That would make the ‘21-22 campaign an unabashed success given how bad things had gotten.
There is still work to do. The next four games - all on the road, but against the shorthanded Wolves and Pistons, plus the solid but beatable Thunder and Raptors - will determine a lot. 3-1 is probably necessary, especially with the schedule about to toughen up afterwards.
We’ll see what happens. Winning cures a lot of ills and washes away a lot of bad aftertaste. If they are going to start compiling more victories than losses, it’s going to come on the back of someone who was all but tossed out with the trash. If Walker keeps it going and can bring Julius with him along for the ride, maybe the story of this season is just beginning to be written after all.
A lump of coal and a swift kick in the tuchus were runners up.
Stats as of yesterday morning.