It's likely too little, too late, but New York just keeps winning
Good morning! Leave it to the Knicks to tie their longest winning streak of the season after the season is essentially over. Oh well. Better late than never, right? Let’s get into why these wins aren’t just a tank-killer and how some of the most important pieces in the organization’s future are at the heart of it.
Friday: Knicks 111, Heat 103
For three quarters, it looked like New York’s five-year run of futility in South Beach would continue. The Knicks were playing hard and sharing the rock, but some cold shooting from RJ Barrett and Evan Fournier (7-for-28 combined; 4-for-20 from deep) kept the Heat ahead by double digits for most of the game. The lead ballooned to 17 to start the final frame, but that’s when the Knicks flipped the script on their Miami malaise and their season-long fourth quarter woes. New York kiddos McBride, Grimes and Sims plus old sage Taj Gibson rallied behind the King of the Fourth, Immanuel Quickley, who scored 20 in the last 12 minutes to help the Knicks pull off arguably their best win of the season.
Sunday: Knicks 104, Pistons 102
Ahh…now that’s the Knicks team I know and love.
After treating Friday like opposite day, we got a familiar site yesterday: New York came out effectively enough, watched the bench push the lead over 20, and then sloooowly gave it all back with a combination of missed shots and meh defense. Instead of blowing yet another game though, New York made just enough plays on both ends to come away with the victory.
⓵ The kids are alright. If you’ve been consumed by college ball for the last week, this is really the only takeaway that’s important.
Every time the Knicks’ kids have had a great stretch of play this season, usually to start a second or fourth quarter, we’re left asking ourselves, “What if it was like this all the time?”
Well, we’ve sort of found out. After being out-dueled by Trae Young on Monday, New York had their best back to back performances of the season in victories against Charlotte and Miami, followed by a win in Detroit in which the kids were yet again the best part. The results aren’t aways always perfect, but the brand of basketball is unquestionably preferable to the alternative, and the effort - like we saw in the fourth quarter comeback in Miami - is never in question.
There’s no one person who makes the engine go like it does - every young player has been part of lineups that work and lineups that don’t - but it’s hard to watch whole games without Julius Randle on the court and not notice a difference. Speaking of which…
⓶ Julius was back. It wasn’t all bad. Randle scored 20 points on 7-of-18 shooting, and while his presence at times felt like a wet blanket over the good vibes of the last week, he came through with two consecutive big shots that put the Knicks up five after being tied midway through the fourth and then assisted on the biggest bucket of the game. There were also some of the customary blunders, like when Randle got caught ball watching on a back door cut by Marvin Bagley and then made matters worse by fouling him on the poster dunk:
At this point, there’s a subset of fans who - understandably - would happily move off of the remaining four years of Randle’s contract for a future protected second round pick and a bag of deflated basketballs. It can be hard to enjoy the game when he is on the court.
As tempting as that would be, Randle is still an asset to this team, albeit an incredibly distressed one. The Knicks may move him before next year, but only if they get something of value back in return.
⓷ Thibs Has Spoken. After Friday’s win, one in which embattled head coach Tom Thibodeau finally gave his critics exactly what they’ve been asking for, he had a few choice words for those folks:
“You guys are trying to nitpick this, nitpick that. You need everyone over the course of the season. We love our young guys. We see it every day. They’re supposed to bring energy, and they did. They were terrific. But you need RJ. You need Julius. You need Mitch. You need everyone…you need Evan. You need Alec. You need everyone. It’s a team, not an individual thing.”
After discussing some other things for a bit, the topic came up again, and he continued:
“Everyone has all the answers right after a game and oftentimes, they haven’t studied. So how do you really know? And I don’t want anything to divide our team. I want our team together. That’s how you win. You win as a team. You lose as a team. So when I see stuff being written or people talking about this, that. Often times, you hear it all the time, and when you actually do study it and you watch the game again and maybe you watch it a third time, you actually know what transpired.”
Asked as a follow up about the impact of social media, Thibs had this to offer:
“It’s where we are in society today. With social media, it’s a different animal. Look, it’s part of the game. We love it. It drives the game. It’s as popular as it’s ever been. But to me, I don’t like anything that eats away at the fabric of the team. And so, people want to take one game, whether it’s a win or a loss, and they went, ‘Well, this, this and this.’ No. And oftentimes, the things that they’re saying, a guy might make one good play in the game and he has nine bad plays or conversely, he makes nine good plays and he has one bad play.”
After one final follow up, Thibs finished his thoughts on social media with this:
“It’s a big part of the league. You’ve got to be careful with it. It’s different, but we’re all the same. You have information coming at you constantly. Even if you stay off it, there’s going to be people telling you what they’re saying, so you’re going to hear it. So just block it out, don’t get distracted. Come in every day knowing that, hey, some days you may not play great but you can still help the team win. I just want the team to keep growing, just keep improving, keep learning. We’ve got young guys, they’re going to learn. Trial and error is a big part of learning. Bring energy to the group, vets help the young guys grow and then I want them to grow as well.”
This, predictably, angered a lot of people. Perhaps you’re one of them. If you are, I don’t blame you. Thibodeau is a stubborn man and this is the epitome of him digging in his heels in the face of anyone who thinks they know better.
Personally, I love it. Why? I don’t completely know. There’s something endearing to me about a man with a set of core beliefs about the game of basketball who has been working his whole life to see his teams execute on those beliefs as exactingly as possible. Is he always right? Goodness no. No one is. Every head coach has blindspots. His are perhaps more obvious than others, and they will be his undoing here eventually.
But for right now at least, he still has a team of mostly kids playing hard, playing well and playing together. They are 8-8 since the break with the 10th best net rating in the NBA despite a pretty tough schedule.
And he certainly hasn’t lost his edge.
The Hawks’ magic number is four: any combination of Atlanta wins and New York losses that add up to four means New York is out. The Knicks have seven games left, while the Hawks have eight, starting tonight in Indiana and then continuing in OKC on Wednesday. Realistically, Atlanta would have to get upset in one of these two games for the Knicks to have a prayer.
💫 Stars of the Weekend 💫
⭐️ Alec Burks: Give the man his due.
After a nice statistical game on Friday night, Burks was the hero in Detroit, scoring 18 points on just six shots, including the biggest basket of the game to put the Knicks up four with under a minute remaining. For a guy who’s hit 31 percent overall and from deep in clutch situations and sits at an even minus-100 in 104 clutch minutes this season, this had to feel good.
Better yet, Burks came through even bigger on the final play, when he had the assignment on Cade Cunningham for the last shot of the game:
Burks hasn’t been great in a role he’s ill-suited for, but he’s still a damn good basketball player. It’s nice that he got to have this moment.
⭐️ ⭐️ Obi Toppin: After three straight games playing significant minutes against the Hawks, Hornets and Heat, Obi Toppin has seen at least 23 minutes eight times in his sophomore campaign. His averages in a bit less than 30 minutes per game in those eight: 14.1 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists on 58.6 percent shooting overall and a not completely atrocious 30.7 percent from deep. The team has outscored their opponents by 27 points total in those minutes.
The scary thing? It could be even better:
This is a pass from early in the Heat game by Alec Burks, who has been the Knicks starting point guard for nearly half of this season’s games. As Harry Doyle would say, it was juuuust a bit outside. Since Derrick Rose was injured, Toppin has had as his point guard either Burks or Immanuel Quickley, who is still learning the position.
The key thing on the above sequence is how Toppin didn’t give up on the play. He keeps the ball alive, and then just in case Fournier missed, ducks in for an offensive board. He does that a lot. Obi is averaging 2.2 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes, up from 1.4 per 36 during his rookie season. Cleaning the Glass has his positional designation as a big, but compared to other forwards, his 6.8 percent offensive rebound rate would rank in the 96th percentile across the league. We saw why on Friday night:
Aside from the obvious sense of timing and insane leaping ability, this is just about effort. Obi was already on the other side of half court, ready to get back on defense in case Sims couldn’t corral the ball and continue the possession. Once he realizes New York has retained the ball, there’s no question he’s getting back into the action. Simply put, this is not a level of activity we’ve regularly seen from Julius Randle this season.
Oh, and over his last seven games? Toppin is shooting 38 percent from deep on three attempts per game. #Progress
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Immanuel Quickley: One of the underreported stories of this Knicks season is how they have revamped their shot diet more than any team in basketball. I wrote recently about how they’ve significantly decreased their long-standing unhealthy diet of long two’s and are taking more shots from deep, but the real story is the type of threes they’re attempting. After Utah - in a class of their own with 16.2 pull up threes per game - the Knicks are second in pull up attempts at 13.4 per night, followed by Atlanta and Minnesota. This is quite a jump from their 24th place ranking last season
Those other three teams have the first, third and sixth best offenses in the NBA, while the Knicks are languishing in 23rd. General inefficiency, especially around the rim, is the culprit there, but on pull-ups, they actually rank 11th in efficiency. On Friday night in Miami, the Knicks actually had one of their least efficient nights pulling up, making just five of their 21 pull up attempts.
So what does all this have to do with Immanuel Quickley? While his teammates combined to hit just 2-of-14 pull ups, he was 3-of-7. That included two in 60 seconds to start the fourth which, sandwiched around two IQ free throws, single-handedly got the Knicks back in the game:
By the end of the night, Quickley had poured in 20 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter. He followed that up with 18 points yesterday.
For the second season in a row, Quickley is leading the Knicks in pull-up threes, and is slowly but surely climbing up the league-wide rankings. After finished second in his rookie class to Anthony Edwards in both pull up makes (59) and attempts (178), Quickley is 22nd in the league in pull up attempts this season with 212. He’s played fewer minutes (1584) than everyone above him on the list, and his 34.4 percent hit rate on these shots is tied for 11th best among the top 22.
As the year has gone on, Quickley continues to improve his ability to use the threat of his jumper to his advantage as a playmaker:
RJ winds up missing this shot, but Quick does a wonderful job of first faking the attempt to get his own defender off balance and then looking off Barrett and instead motioning as if he was going to pass to Fournier. By the time RJ gets the rock, he has all the time in the world to line up and fire.
On a per 36 minute basis, basically all of the players who attempt more pull ups than New York’s second year guard are All-Stars. Sticking with the per 36 theme, he’s at 21.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 6.4 made free throws and 2.8 made threes since February 27 - the only player in the NBA to hit all of those marks in that time. If we take away the made threes requirement, it’s IQ, Giannis, Harden, Jokic, SGA, Ja and KD. If we take away the free throw requirement, it’s Quickley, Luka, LeBron, Middleton, Curry, LaMelo and Bones Hyland.
And like most of the above names, the degree of difficulty on Quick’s shots is high. He needs but a sliver of daylight to get one off:
Any way you cut it, over the past month, Immanuel Quickley has been putting up All-Star level production in his minutes. With only seven games remaining before yet another summer in which they will attempt to address the point guard position, the Knicks must give real consideration to whether the best, most cost-efficient realistic option already exists on their roster.
🏙 Game Night 🏀
Who: Knicks vs Bulls
When: 7:30 pm
Who’s out: Quentin Grimes missed yesterday’s game with a sore right knee - the same knee that kept him out for several weeks following the All-Star break. He’d been struggling with his shot until Friday night, when he hit three huge 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, including one to tie and one to go ahead. Hopefully he’s OK. For Chicago, Lonzo Ball is out but everyone else is good to go.
Halftime: click here to enter.