Lost & Found
The Knicks had an up and down weekend, but through it all, may have figured out one big problem.
Good morning! Well that was quite a weekend. We saw some good, some bad, and some ugly. It resulted in one win, one loss and one recent MVP candidate who might just be back on track. That, plus the news and another edition of #NYK75, but first, if you’re not fully on board, you know what to do:
On the whole, the Knicks came out of the weekend feeling slightly better about themselves than when they went in.
The roller coaster ride that has been the search for chemistry with the starting five reached its nadir on Saturday against the glorified G-League Rockets, but may have reached a crescendo in the second half against Chicago, when Julius Randle had a throw back to last season’s role as the offensive be all, end all.
Another bright spot is the defense, which has been the 12th ranked unit in basketball over their last nine games. There are still issues (some open corner threes in the early fourth were their downfall last night), but on the whole, that side of the floor has gotten better as well.
But for a team that had lofty expectations coming into the season and especially after a 5-1 start, the reality continues to set in that this season is going to feature some tough sledding. Every night, it seems that more players have bad games than good ones, and this weekend was no exception. The whole has not yet coalesced into something greater than the sum of its parts.
Injuries also haven’t helped. Taj Gibson missed both games this weekend, and Mitchell Robinson missed yesterday after suffering a concussion on Saturday night, forcing Jericho Sims into action in Chicago. On the bright side, Nerlens Noel returned and looked like a solid version of himself.
Let’s get to the games.
Saturday: Knicks 106, Rockets 99
⌚️ TL;DW: The Rockets showed everyone early on why they are comfortably the worst team in the NBA, and the Knicks someone played below even that level. It wasn’t just missed shots; it was an obvious lack of purpose and urgency that led to just 13 first quarter points by New York. The bench again came to the rescue, but as has been the case recently, Thibs mixed and matched late, closing with the guys who were playing the best. They won with a mix of Noel, Randle, Fournier, IQ, and the MVP of the game, Alec Burks. Even so, they were damn lucky to be playing Houston.
Sunday: Knicks 103, Bulls 109
⌚️ TL;DW: Although they came out with a better effort than the previous night, there was still something off about New York’s early offensive effort, resulting in just 20 first quarter points and an early 11-point Bulls lead after less than six minutes. New York outscored Chicago the rest of the way behind a rejuvenated Julius Randle, but their cold shooting outside of Randle ultimately did them in against a very good team firing on all cylinders right now.
⓵ Randle might just have to be the man once again. All season long, we’ve see Julius try his best to blend in with the Knicks new additions, and vice versa. It hasn’t worked. Randle has vacillated between looking uncomfortable, uncertain, and flat out bad. That wasn’t the case last night though, when Randle dominated the second half with 20 points as the offense flowed through last year’s MVP candidate. Often guarded by smaller Chicago defenders, Randle hit more tough shots than he has all season.
Hopefully a sign of things to come.
⓶ RJ is in a bad place. RJ Barrett is going to be fine. His defense is once again on the up and up and his effort can’t be questioned, especially after last night’s 15 boards. The shot is going to come around, and the finishing, well…we saw it be better over the first few weeks of the season. It’s in there somewhere. It’s just buried at the moment.
All that said, right now, it’s really tough to generate strong offense when a starting wing is giving so little. Over the last eight games, Barrett has an effective field goal percentage of 31.3, which is dead last among 163 players who have averaged at least 25 minutes a game in that time.
⓷ The starting five was on its last legs, but may have been given a reprieve. It’s now been 17 games, and the starting foursome of Randle, Barrett, Walker and Fournier has been outscored by 12.6 points per 100 possessions over 365 minutes. Just when it looked like it might be time to pull the plug, the third quarter performance against Chicago was encouraging. Randle did most of the heavy lifting, but Kemba Walker again had some nice moments:
The on/off numbers on the season are dreadful, but Walker’s flashes (as well as Noel’s return) provides some hope.
Well, at least the Knicks can say they lost on the road to the best team in the East:
We’re pretty close to the quarter season mark, so what we see above should be taken seriously. In other words, the Bulls (who have the second best net rating in the East after Miami) are here to stay. Milwaukee is also going to be fine. Those two, plus Miami and Brooklyn, are safe bets for the top six, and probably for home court. Once Embiid comes back, you’d have to figure Philly gets in that mix as well.
That doesn’t leave much wiggle room, and the reality is that the Knicks would be well-served staying in the race for a playoff birth. With a barely positive net rating, simply securing a home game in the play-in should now be reasonable goal.
💫 Stars of the Weekend 💫
It was a busy couple of days, and also an inconsistent one for a few players. Evan Fournier was really good on Saturday, hitting 7-of-13 overall and 5-of-10 from deep. They don’t win the game without him. Unfortunately, it was one step forward and two steps back, and Fournier went 1-for-7 yesterday. It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that the Knicks are 5-0 in Fournier’s five highest scoring games.
The toughest cut, however, was Immanuel Quickley, who was again masterful on Saturday. He only had 13 points but got to the line a season high six times. When he pointed to the baseline after Christian Wood made an inbounds flub, it represented a joy that has too often been missing from the team this season:
He also had, as usual, one of the biggest shots of the game:
The chutzpah to pull up on a 3-on-1 fast break remains his best quality.
He was off last night (just 1-of-8 from deep), which helped contribute to the loss, but the development of the 22-year-old remains perhaps the most exciting part of this Knicks season.
Oh, and of course we should shout out Obi Toppin, who played only 28 minutes between the two games despite continuing to impress. Why the low total? Thibs clearly doesn’t trust him to play the five on defense, and when Chicago went small to close the game last night, Barrett’s perimeter defense seemed more valuable to the head coach in the moment, resulting in RJ, not Obi, closing at the four with Randle manning the five. On the bright side, Toppin his 2-of-3 from deep last night, and he remains confident in his shot.
⭐️ Nerlens Noel: The three blocks in each of the last two games are a reminder of what a difference maker he can be on the defensive end.
Here’s the more interesting thing though: in 140 minutes this season, the Knicks have a 116.8 offensive rating when Noel plays, which is tops on the team, and more than eight points better per 100 possessions than their regular number. Not bad for old stone hands.
We know what his speed can do on defense, but that extra verve seems to come in handy on the offensive end as well (not to mention the occasional hard and purposeful screen).
⭐️ ⭐️ Julius Randle: There are now two questions: Is what we saw sustainable, and if so, is it what’s in the best interest of the Knicks moving forward?
Let’s start with the first question. As LDS pointed out in the postgame show last night, the Bulls played Randle small as a function of the injury to Vucevick. It didn’t work. Other teams (like Houston just the night before, when Randle went 4-of-15) have put more size on him, and it has given him issues.
That said, there was a tenacity to Randle’s offense yesterday, especially in that third quarter, that we haven’t seen since arguably last season. Going small and giving him more space to work as a finisher also helped a bit:
We’ll find out if the reborn Randle is here to stay, but the more interesting part is how the Knicks just seemed to make more sense when Ju had it going.
There appears to be no question at this point that last year’s All-NBA 2nd Team forward greatly prefers to have the ball in his hands. One might also make the logical leap that doing so also increases his level of engagement at the other end of the floor. Whatever it is, it’s the best the starters have looked in a while, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Alec Burks: Had it not been for Burks, the Knicks would be below .500 right now. It’s really that simple. With 20 points, five boards and five steals on Saturday night, including 17 points and four steals in the fourth, Burks was without question the best player on the court:
He also hit 6-of-7 from deep against the Rockets. Throw in last night’s 3-for-6 showing overall, and Burks now has a 56.5 effective field goal percentage this season, which would be a career high. As Thibs said after the game, he’s also a fourth quarter player, with no fear of the big moment:
If the Knicks wind up doing anything worth a darn this season, they’ll likely owe a debt of gratitude to Burks and his fourth quarter performance.
🗣 News & Notes ✍️
🏀 Didn’t mention it at the end of last week, but Deuce McBride had himself a game in the G-League, going off for 25 points, nine assists and five rebounds.
In case it wasn’t clear from summer league, the kid can play.
🏀 Sacramento fired head coach Luke Walton. We’ll see if there are any more De’Aaron Fox rumors in the offing.
#NYK75: No.64 - Connie Simmons
All-Time Franchise Ranks:
Games Played: 329 (41st)
Points scored: 3362 (49th)
Scoring average: 10.2 (107th)
Playoff points: 606 (15th)
Win Shares: 16.4 (48th)
Best Knicks Stat: Twice finished in the top-20 in field goal percentage
There aren’t many players in league history who can lay claim to being the leading scorer for a league champ during a Finals series, but that’s the sort of pedigree that Connie Simmons brought to the New York Knicks.
Had their been an MVP back in 1948 BAA Finals, it would probably have gone to Simmons, who led the Baltimore Bullets to the title over the Philadelphia Warriors. Earlier in that playoff run, he put up 89 points in a three-game quarterfinal win over the Knicks - a staggering total at the time, with no one else in the series putting up half as many points.
The next season, New York would get its revenge, defeating Simmons’ Bullets in the Eastern division semis. That summer, the 6'8" big man, born in Newark and educated at Flushing High School before bypassing college altogether to enter the pros, decided that if he couldn’t beat’em, he’d join’em.
As a Knick, Simmons was part of a core that led the team to three straight Finals appearances. His 262 points scored during the NBA’s championship round still ranks fourth in team history, one point behind Dave DeBusschere. His 15 double digit scoring games in the Finals trails only Clyde’s 16.
Unfortunately, he could never lead the team to the same promised land he reached with the Bullets, and in 1954, he was traded back to Baltimore in a deal that returned Ray Felix, who had made the All-Star team as a rookie the previous season. Another name lost to time, Simmons was nonetheless a key figure during one of the few periods of sustained success in Knicks history.