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We take one final look back at the playoffs before we start looking forward.
Good Morning! Are you over it? I’m kind of over it. It was a heck of a run, but what’s meant to be will be, and for as good as this year was, it just wasn’t meant to be. It happens. Doesn’t mean there isn’t still a lot to celebrate…and analyze…and process. We’ll do all three of those things today.
Oh, and if you’re somehow not fully subscribed to the KFS Newsletter, even though the season is over, I can promise you there’s no better time to get on board. There’s no rest for the weary, and I’ll have a plethora of offseason preview content coming in the weeks ahead, followed by full analysis of the moves they make come late June and early July.
(Spoiler alert: there will be some stuff to analyze.)
There are three things from Game 6 that Knick fans (and I’m sure Knick players and coaches) will be thinking about for a long time: the 2:07 stretch of the second quarter in which Jalen Brunson sat and Miami outscored New York 7-0; the decision to double Jimmy Butler on several occasions in the fourth quarter that led to Heat makes; and the final turnover where Brunson tried to get the ball to Julius Randle.
All three deserve criticism, but perhaps in slightly different ways than we’ve seen thus far, starting with the second quarter debacle. Should Brunson and Randle ever have been out of the game at the same time? Probably not. Should RJ Barrett and Josh Hart have been left to spearhead an offense where the best ancillary offensive threat was Obi Toppin? Almost certainly not. It seems clear that Thibs was hoping to bully ball / offensive rebound his way to a few garbage buckets during this stretch, and it blew up in his face.
Even so, the play on the court during this stretch was especially atrocious, and it can’t be blamed entirely on the personnel. On three out of the four possessions, New York challenged Bam Adebayo for no apparent reason - once where Hart drove baseline right at Bam and then threw a pass to the corner that was roughly four feet off target; once where Hart was rejected on an unnecessary layup attempt with 14 left on the clock, and once where Adebayo stymied RJ even though Barrtt had an available kick to Deuce, who was wide open at the top of the arc. Somehow, the fourth play was the worst of all, where RJ got the switch he wanted, but allowed noted perennial All-Defense fixture Duncan Robinson steal the ball from a standstill position.
Again: doesn’t absolve the lineup decision, but I don’t think anyone could have anticipated that two minutes could have possibly gone that poorly.
That brings us to the fourth quarter defense. Overall, Miami scored 22 points in the fourth, and four of those points came on late free throws when the Knicks were fouling in an attempt to extend the game. That’s not bad, and is at least good enough to make you wonder what result might have transpired had non-Brunson Knicks not missed 8-of-9 fourth quarter field goal attempts, including all six threes by five different players (with Julius clanging two). The one make: a Josh Hart cutting layup after his man went to double - who else - Jalen Brunson. There were also three turnovers in the fourth before the final one by Brunson - two from Barrett and one from Randle.
Necessary context, but not absolution, as the Jimmy doubles generally yielded poor results, and bad offense or no bad offense, every little margin counts when you’re considering the difference between a win and a loss. It started with Miami’s first made field goal of the quarter, which came after Isaiah Hartenstein doubled Butler, which forced Josh Hart to cover the rolling Bam, which left Caleb Martin wide open for a three. Too easy.
New York’s defense held firm for the next several minutes though, but then after a long two from Bam, there was this possession that doubled Miami’s lead midway through the quarter:
Here’s the thing about this though: it wasn’t the double team that was really at fault. New York’s initial rotation off the double was fine, but Obi Toppin simply gets blown by in the corner from Gabe Vincent. Less egregious but still problematic was RJ failing to realize that he needed to shift closer to Strus in the event of this exact pass being made. Finally, Brunson is nearby but at his height was simply not able to offer a worthy contest.
In short, this scheme can work perfectly fine, but you need to have the personnel to execute it, and its pretty clear that the Knicks - at least at the moment - don’t.
Perhaps in response to this outcome, the Knicks just executed a switch on Butler on the very next possession, and sure enough, Jimmy drained a jumper over RJ. Even so, Butler was just 2-of-8 in the fourth - seemingly a sign that the doubling was unnecessary. I do wonder though: How much of that 2-for-8 had to do with the fact that Butler felt compelled to shoot anytime he wasn’t doubled, which perhaps led to some poor attempts? Something to ponder.
Anyway, here was the backbreaker:
We brought it up a few times in this series, but the need for big time defensive plays in moments like this is why you pay Mitch $15 million a year. Whether because of injury or some other reason, he just didn’t have it all series. Making matters worse, Julius doesn’t exactly hustle to the block once its clear where this play was headed. Had he done so, maybe he’s in better position to contest what ended up being Bam’s easiest bucket of the game.
Last but not least, the turnover. I’ve rewatched it a bunch. Could Julius have made a better effort to get the ball? I don’t know. The problem isn’t really the effort though, or even the location of the pass; it’s that Randle wasn’t expecting the ball - or at least not anymore he wasn’t.
Watch him put his hands up for the pass a split second before Jalen was in a position to deliver it:
By the time Brunson threw it though, Julius was already entangled with Gabe Vincent and could only slap at the rock with a chance to tie the game.
And then there’s the small matter of Josh Hart wide open at the top of the arc. I have confidence in Hart’s ability to make this shot, and I’m sure in retrospect, that’s the play Brunson wishes he’d made. I do wonder though: with Hart’s slow release, would Bam have gotten there in enough time to contest the shot?
The stuff that keeps you up at night.
GOAT Knick Postseason?
No, not ever. A few folks with the last names Reed and Frazier lay claim to the first few spots on that list.
And not even in the five decades since Willis and Clyde made their final march to the promised land; Patrick Ewing’s 25-game postseason run in 1994 probably stands alone in that regard, even if he was outplayed in the Finals and his efficiency numbers throughout those playoffs were not exactly sterling, even accounting for the era.
But taking a look at every Knick since the title teams who averaged over 20 postseason points while making at least the second round of the playoffs, Jalen Brunson’s stats look pret-ty darn impressive:
From a counting stats, advanced stats and efficiency standpoint, Bernard King’s God-mode masterpiece in 1984 stands at the top of the list, but it’s hard to put that above Ewing’s run a decade later considering Patrick played twice as many games and came within six points of an NBA championship.
After those two though, where does Brunson’s 2023 postseason rank on the list? Melo had a higher postseason scoring average in a year where teams put up 16 fewer points per game than they do now, but like Ewing in ‘94, Anthony was woefully inefficient, with an effective field goal percentage more than 60 points lower than league average. He also averaged one more turnover than assist. Those are some of the reasons why his advanced stats (box plus minus and win shares per 48 minutes) are 7th out of 11 players on this list.
The other big time scoring season here came from Pat in 1990, the lone year he made All-NBA 1st team and arguably when he was at the peak of his powers. Given that he was still defending at a near-elite level back then and the fact that New York lost to the eventual champion Pistons, this run probably goes alongside ‘94 and Bernard’s ‘84 in the top three post-title playoff performances. His 1993 run, which included convincing victories over Indiana and Charlotte, deserves consideration as well.
Brunson’s biggest competition for the back end of the top five is probably Sprewell in ‘99, who was the best player on that Finals team. But like a few other candidates we’ve mentioned already, he shot it poorly even in comparison to league average - 41 points below, to be exact - and turned it over a ton in comparison to his assists. There’s a reason the advanced numbers don’t think very highly of Spree’s run (although compared to Allan Houston in the same playoffs, they love him).
So I’m putting Brunson 5th, after the top three Ewing years and King’s 1984. Seems to lofty? Well consider this: In the last 50 postseasons, Jalen Brunson is one of only five players who have played double digit playoff games while averaging at least 27 points, five assists, four rebounds, under 2.5 turnovers, and carrying a 53 effective field goal percentage or higher.
And Brunson lost to one of the other freaking guys that did it:
Nothing to be ashamed of there.
(Oh, and I’ve been meaning to pass along this cool Andrew Steinthal article on Jalen Brunson’s five favorite postgame restaurants in NYC. Prepare to get hungry.)
Embracing the Unknown
Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow.
I’m opening today’s newsletter with this very silly Tommy Lee Jones quote from a very silly movie about aliens and for a few reasons.
For one, Men in Black is an ultimately inconsequential movie in the history of Hollywood that is nonetheless beloved by millions. Similarly, the 2022-23 New York Knicks are not a team that will be remembered in the annals of NBA history. They are one of literally hundreds of teams who came out of relative nowhere to ride a magic carpet into May. At the same time, for all of us who experienced it first hand, this season won’t soon be forgotten.
But there’s a bigger reason I’m starting with the wise words of Agent K, and that’s because the sentiment behind them perfectly encapsulates not only these Knicks, but fandom as a whole. Every year we go into a new season, with all sports but especially the NBA, and think we know more or less what’s going to transpire. Back in the fall, outside of a fringe group of optimists, we knew that New York’s realistic ceiling was a play-in berth, with maybe a 95th percentile upside of a six seed.
Over the ensuing six months, that ceiling morphed into something greater, to the point that what we thought we knew turned out to be completely incorrect. The wildest part of this isn’t that it happened, but how it happened. There was no star trade. No quantum leap from an unexpected piece on the roster. No onslaught of injuries on teams that were supposed to be their superior. It was just a roster full of guys who exceeded expectations to a surprising but not shocking degree. More than that, the whole exceeded the sum of the parts and the team found a working formula for scoring at a rate that even the #53Wins crowd couldn’t have imagined.
That across-the-board growth is part of why the 2022-23 season will live on in our hearts and minds for decades, either as a singular object of adoration, or hopefully, the start of something that will provide more joy for years to come.
Whether it turns out to be the former or the latter of those two scenarios is currently an unknown, and why few fans are resting on the laurels of vastly exceeded expectations. The good vibes of this season are already a thing of the past, replaced by the inevitable question: That was fun, but how do we get better?
I’ve been thinking about this all weekend as its clear there are many fans who are not only disappointed in the outcome of the season, but genuinely perplexed as to why it didn’t last longer. How does one go from playing with house money to owing the casino two months’ worth of rent checks?
I think the answer lies in the nature of this ouster, at the hands of an 8th seeded Miami team that bumbled and fumbled their way to a 44-38 record and a 21st ranked net rating before losing arguably their third and eighth best players to injury before facing the Knicks. There is no worse feeling in sports than losing in the playoffs when you believe you had the better team, and that’s surely the genesis for some of the current mindset. The Knicks did not get taken out by a superteam. They weren’t clearly a less talented group. They were merely beaten, often at their own game.
Losing in such a manner is hard, but then again, how often does a playoff loss go down easy? Rare is the case that you get a season like the ‘99 Knicks, when it was impossible to feel anything besides love and admiration for a group that undoubtedly maxed out its potential.
That’s the exception though, not the rule. Far more often, playoff losses are messy and unpleasant. 15 teams don’t make it all the way every year. How many of those exit the playoffs feeling more good than bad about the state of things? A couple, maybe?
Even with a preseason over/under of 38.5 games and nearly 70-to-1 title odds, the Knicks didn’t leave everyone with a warm and fuzzy feeling on their way out. That’s partially for the reasons I just described, but also because of what I mentioned earlier - the great unknown of what lies ahead, and the feeling like significant changes may be needed to get where we’d like to go.
In a perfect world, you’re not worried about these questions because you’re a team like the 2010 Thunder or the 2013 Warriors (or even to a lesser extent the 2017 Jazz or the 2021 Grizzlies) - teams that lost in their initial foray into the postseason but were confident in the core, coach and culture they had in place to expect bigger and better things in the years ahead.
Not that confidence is a guarantor of anything, evinced by the fact that only one of those teams wound up winning it all, while two broke up before they could capture the ultimate prize. But it certainly takes the edge off a playoff loss.
Most teams though, regardless of whether they vastly out-kicked their coverage or fell severely short, don’t get to experience the warm fuzzies on their way out. The reason is that most playoff losses leave questions, and often uncomfortable ones at that. Were we out-coached? Did our best players live up to the moments? Were our role players exposed? Are our offensive and defensive schemes built for postseason success? And if its not the schemes, coach, or players playing far below their abilities, then we have the most uncomfortable question of all: do we just not have the talent?
The worst part is that playoff exits don’t come with report cards from the all-knowing basketball gods, doling out specific grades for each area and giving defined tips under a “Needs to Improve” heading. Games and series are usually messy, convoluted things with a plethora of sliding door moments and interconnected occurrences.
Take this series, for instance, in which the Knicks decided to focus extra attention on Jimmy Butler whenever he had the ball, leading to a fair amount of good looks for Miami, including during the pivotal closing stretch of Game 6. Does the result of the series mean that this was unequivocally not the best strategy? Would a more even-handed approach have yielded better results? Is this an indictment on the coach, even if most coaches tend to approach defending great players in generally the same way? And if so, what is the indictment? On the scheme, or the personnel selected to employ it? Or is this just an indication that the team needs more stout defenders in the rotation, instead of making due with what they have and relying so much on Mitchell Robinson to clean up the messes? And if they pivot to better defenders on the perimeter, does it reduce the need to have an elite defensive backstop, and in turn open up the chance to acquire a offensively skilled big in the middle? Could that open up the possibility of an entire scheme overhaul on offense, with more actions running out of the high post and-
I could go on. Mercifully, I won’t.
But you get the points. And this is just one issue….there are countless ways to pick apart a series loss like this - dozens if not hundreds of individual moments that make you wonder whether, how and how much to pivot in another direction.
Alternatively, there is a far easier approach:
This season was a blast. Jalen Brunson is clearly Him. We have some dawgs, and they are all getting better. The average age of the rotation players is 24. Something about this brew - multiple things, in fact - are clearly working. The front office has shown itself to be aggressive in exploring opportunities, yet judicious in closing deals. Whatever uncertainties may exist - the long term viability of Thibodeau and Randle, IQ’s impending extension, the inevitable star trade rumors - will sort themselves out in time. Whatever happens, the Knicks are operating from a position of strength.
After a playoff loss, it’s hard to remember all of the above, let alone to embrace it, especially when you’re convinced you’ve left meat on the bone. That’s just the nature of the beast.
But true it is, every word. And even though it doesn’t feel like it right now, these words matter at least as much as the questions that linger over this defeat.
The life cycle of every NBA team features moments like this - the push and pull of frustration and hope. It’s all part of the unknown that makes fandom fun.
Might as well embrace it, because other than winning a championship, what’s better than realizing we don’t really know anything?
See y’all soon! #BlackLivesMatter
Ewing’s .441 effective field goal percentage in the 1994 playoffs was more than 40 points below league average for that season, to say nothing of league average for centers. By comparison, Hakeem’s eFG% was .521 for the same postseason, more than 80 points higher than Ewing.