So Far, Sooo Very Good
The Knicks are only 3-3, but this weekend's win has us all - justifiably - feeling pret-ty good.
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On to a review of this weekend’s action...
Game 6: Knicks 106, Pacers 102
⌚️ 30-second version: Less than a week after the Knicks had what felt like their best win in years, the Knicks had what felt like their best win in years on Saturday night. Indiana threw a haymaker in the form of an unconscious Malcolm Brogdon, who hit 7-of-10 from deep, several with not much daylight, en route to a career high 33. But almost all of New York’s dozen triples felt extremely timely (maybe that’s what 0-for-23 will do to you), and they held Indiana to just four points between the 6:35 mark of the fourth to when the game was already decided with under 10 seconds left. Every Knick that played contributed to the victory in a meaningful way.
🤕 Injury Report: Immanuel Quickley made his return, joining Austin Rivers as Knicks who had missed time but are now finding their way back. Alec Burks was still out - he’s listed as questionable for tonight’s game at Atlanta - as was Dennis Smith Jr (doubtful for tonight), Omari Spellman (ditto), and Frank Ntilikina and Obi Toppin, who will both miss the bout with the Hawks
🏁 ⓹ Starting Five: Thibs stuck with the same five for the sixth game in a row. At this point, it would be a mild surprise if he shuffled up the first unit (with one possible exception that I’ll get to in a bit) given how much he’s invested in their continuity this early in the season. Heading into Sunday, New York’s starting five had played more minutes than any other five-man grouping in the NBA.
☎️ Call to the Bench: Thibs has been pretty consistent in that he plays his subs in the mid to high teens. Knox, Quickley, Noel and Rivers all saw between 15 and 17 minutes of action, although Rivers was notably inserted in the game for Bullock to close the fourth quarter.
🔮 “I see into your future…”: It feels like people are already starting to get concerned about the rotation when everyone is healthy. I get it, but at the same time, “when everyone is healthy” may not ever be in the offing in this strange campaign.
If Thibs is going to stick to a 10-man limit - and I think he will - then that means someone from the current group, or Obi Toppin or Alec Burks, will be out. My first instinct is to say that Knox would get knocked, but Thibs has gone out of his way to praise Kev since training camp, talking up his conditioning and improved defense. It’s not all smoke:
I think Thibs and the organization are still invested in the kid and will give him every chance to succeed.
Unless you think he’s going to leave Noel on the bench, make Obi/Randle his de facto backup five, and move Knox to the backup four (I don’t), that leaves one of Elf, Quick or Bullock out in the cold (I think Rivers and Burks are safe).
For the life of me, I do not see a world where Elfrid Payton does not continue to play significant minutes for this team, and honestly, he should. He’s the starting point guard for a .500 team and has the best offensive differential of any Knick who qualifies.
Bullock, meanwhile, has by far the worst differential on the team, and even though it’s a small sample size, the Knicks have scored nearly 20 fewer points per 100 possessions during the non-garbage time minutes he has played. That’s…not great (Bob).
But Bullock is also such a steady and willing defender, and his jumper figures to find its form. Maybe dings and dents keep happening and we never find out, but my guess is that he’d be the one to go.
(Yes, I realize the I didn’t mention the name Frank Ntilikina once, and that’s because I have him 12th on this pecking order. He’s shot it worlds better than Reggie, is the better defender and offers more ball movement, but I wonder how much faith Thibs puts in Ntilikina’s hot shooting start. I need to see a larger sample size to answer in the affirmative.)
Dark horse: Obi sits and watches for a few games. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
🔜 Next Up: The Hawks in Atlanta, at 7:30. Trae Young & Co. are coming off their second loss of the season - 96-91 at home to the Cavs - and the first in which their previously top ranked offense hit a roadblock. Young and John Collins combined to go only 9-of-26, and injuries certainly factored in: Kevin Huerter, Danilo Galinari, Rajon Rondo, Kris Dunn, Tony Snell and rookie Onyeka Okongwu all missed the game. Of those, only Huerter has a chance of playing tonight.
Stars of the Game
⭐️ Austin Rivers - a really tough call for our bottom slot between Rivers, Randle (who had his worst game but was still an effective offensive fulcrum and hit some big buckets), Payton (his pressure on the rim absolutely rescued the Knicks when they couldn’t get much going on offense), and Immanuel Quickley, who is just delightful.
But it goes to Rivers, partially because of his dogged defense, but mostly because of his three triples - one was bigger than the next. He’s a gamer.
Oh, and he wrote this, which will make me ❤️ him forever:
⭐️⭐️ Mitchell Robinson - a very tough call between Mitch and our 3-star winner for the top spot today, but he shouldn’t feel bad about losing out. Robinson had an outstanding night, drawing praise from Indiana’s coach and players after the game for his role in suppressing the Pacers’ efforts in the paint.
And then of course, there was this absolute masterclass in fucking up yo’ shit:
We are not worthy.
⭐️⭐️⭐️ RJ Barrett - Give me this kid’s mental makeup, his work ethic, and his general steely demeanor, and it’s enough to make me put aside whatever concerns exist about his shot, finishing, etc. Barrett showed yet again why you should doubt him at your own peril, hitting 4-of-5 from deep two nights after going 0-for-8 from long range.
It’s also going to be super important for him to continue to develop the midrange game as a part of his bag of tricks:
7.0 boards, 3.5 dimes on the year…I’d say he’s coming along just fine for a 20-year-old.
So Far, Sooo Very Good
Since Tom Thibodeau’s mentor, Jeff Van Gundy, last patrolled the sidelines for the New York Knicks, there have been two times when the franchise could boast at least a .500 record and a top-ten defense six games into a season:
2010, when they signed Amar’e Stoudemire and Ray Felton in free agency, and
2012, when they loaded the roster with savvy vets to surround the Melo-led core
This offseason, to put things politely, was not akin to either of those.
The biggest free agent addition was…Alec Burks? I guess? And he’s played half the games. Austin Rivers, arguably the second biggest signee, has played in a third of them. The team had itself an evening on draft night, netting two immediate contributors, who of course have seen 51 total minutes of court time.
As far as returning players go, their star young player is hitting 37.5 percent from the field, six and a half percentage points worse than this time last year. Their other phenom, Mitchell Robinson, is averaging roughly half as many points and blocks per 36 minutes as he was at the 6-game mark of 2019. The closest thing they’ve had to a healthy floor spacer all year, Reggie Bullock, is shooting a shade under 34 percent.
Oh, and the closest thing they have to a star player, Julius Randle, went into Sunday tied for second in the league in turnovers.
And yet, here are these New York Knicks, with as many wins as they have losses and with victories against three teams that have top-ten net ratings, including the one at the top. They have the 8th ranked defense, are sharing the ball at the 12th highest frequency, and are the only team in the NBA ranked in the top five in both frequency of shots at the rim (2nd) and corner threes (4th), according to Cleaning the Glass.
As I wrote last week, some of this is smoke and mirrors. They continue to give up 3-pointers at a geometric rate, with the Raptors and Pacers combining for over 100 attempts from long range.
But those two teams also combined to shoot 35.3 percent, roughly league average, so it’s not like this has all been built on luck.
More importantly, it seems the Thibodeau mantra is finally bearing some fruit. Toronto scored just 30 points in the paint on New Year’s Eve, and two nights later, Indiana got just 26, which is 42 fewer than they did on opening night.
On possessions like this one that we saw in the fourth quarter, it’s not hard to see the progress they’re making:
(Giphy.com only lets you make GIF’s up to 15 seconds in length, but the first six seconds of this defensive possession included Nerlens Noel and Nerlens Noel’s gloriously quick hands temporarily disrupting the set by swatting the ball free from Domantas Samonis’ grasp, followed by Austin Rivers fighting hard over a screen to prevent the intended handoff to Victor Oladipo, prompting the swing back to Brogdon, which starts the segment we see here).
Using more or less the same cast of characters as we saw last season, the man known as Thibs has not wasted any time leaving his imprint on this team despite an abbreviated training camp and a roster that has been hit somewhat hard by injuries.
That imprint was perhaps most directly felt on Saturday night, which was a Thibodeau win in every way possible. For one, the Pacers - who came into the game fifth in the league in offense - scored just 20 points in the fourth quarter, and were shut out over the final four and a half minutes of the game, save for some meaningless baskets in the last 10 seconds.
He also leaned on his best players, hard, with RJ Barrett playing 42 minutes, including all but a 1:46 of the second half. Heading into Sunday, Barrett was leading the league in minutes, with Julius Randle right behind in second place.
(If you’re waiting for me to clutch pearls over this most predictable of developments, you’ll be waiting a while. Barrett and Randle are averaging just under 38 minutes a game, and are 20 and 26 years old, respectively. Last season, the more diminutive duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum averaged about as many minutes as the Knicks’ pairing currently is, are both pushing 30, and each soak up every bit as much usage.
James Harden, Bradley Beal, Kyle Lowry…the list of heavy-minute NBA stars in the sports science era runs long, and several play for the most analytically savvy organizations in the league. Wake me when there is something to be concerned about.)
More than anything, Thibs is doing what he’s always done, and that’s working with what he’s got:
Got a bunch of playmakers who can’t shoot and a center whose one elite offensive skill involves his timing and athleticism around the rim? It’ll do.
So far this season, New York joins Miami and Toronto as the only teams in the league with three players averaging at least ten drives per game. As a team, the Knicks are fifth in the NBA in drives per game, third in passing out of those drives, have the seventh lowest turnover rate on drives, and are shooting 50 percent on all field goals that derive from drives - 9th best in the league and far more efficient than their 22nd ranked effective field goal percentage overall.
In short, he’s taking the one offensive asset he’s got - guys who can get into the teeth of a defense - and making it work for him. David Fizdale also tried to live at the rim, but did so by blunt force rather than through purposeful movement, both by ball and man. So far this season, the Knicks are sixth in the NBA in miles run per game on offense. Last season they finished seventh…from the bottom.
Is it perfect? Heck no:
At one point in this possession, every Pacer had at least one foot in the paint. Sabonis had zero qualms leaving Elfrid Payton by his lonesome above the arc. But you do the best with what you have.
The movement here - the two-man game by Julius and Reggie on the perimeter as RJ positions himself in the corner - isn’t anything revolutionary, but it’s crisp, it accentuates the strengths of the personnel (the threat of Bullock’s shooting, plus Randle’s ability to make the simple pass on the move), and most importantly, it’s happening. Too often last season, and in so many seasons before that, it didn’t.
These Knicks don’t have much, but through six games at least, they are a feisty bunch. They had every excuse to take Thursday night’s disaster and allow it to imbue them with a selfishness that was ever-present under Fiz.
It didn’t happen. If anything, they are still overpassing to their detriment:
These things will happen when you try and revert course on a team that finished dead last in the league in assists two years in a row and insist that if they don’t pass, they won’t play.
Where does it go from here? That’s what every sensible Knicks fan should be wondering today. A team with so little offensive talent is bound to have more nights like they had in Tampa (that still sounds so freaking weird), where they eventually get bested by superior shot makers.
Or, maybe, things keep progressing. Maybe Obi comes back and looks like the guy we figured he would. Maybe Immanuel Quickley keeps up the Lou Williams Jr. act that’s already giving teams fits. Maybe RJ finds his shot. Maybe the ceiling Thibodeau claims we haven’t yet seen from Mitchell Robinson actually makes an appearance. And just maybe, Julius Randle can keep up the number on the left while decreasing the one on the right:
At this point, I’m not counting anything out. Thibs has gotten the attention of the room, and because he has, he has the attention of the fan base as well. It is well deserved. This is a team we can watch and not feel like we need our head in a bag to do so. That’s all this season ever needed to be about.
Six games. So far, so good. So, so very good.
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See everyone soon! #BlackLivesMatter