View from the Top
The Knicks are in first and have a young star on their hands, but their weekend was also filled with frustration.
Good morning to everyone, but especially to fans of the team tied for the best record in basketball. Yup, it’s a beautiful Monday morning indeed.
Hopefully the Knicks can keep that energy going tonight (more on that in a bit) after a thrilling weekend win over New Orleans (ditto), but first, a message: Tomorrow marks one year that this has been a paid subscription based newsletter. Since that day, more than 1500 Knicks fans have gotten aboard with a full subscription, and I just wanted to take a moment to say THANK YOU to each and every one of you. I also want to continue spreading the love!
If you’d like to get on board with a full subscription to get this newsletter five days per week (and occasionally on weekends, like when a certain 21-year-old has the game of his life!) I’m offering a one-year anniversary special to get this bad boy at $4 a month or $40 a year:
Lastly, if you’re already a full subscriber who signed up at the beginning of last year and (hopefully) want to continue with your full subscription, don’t worry, you don’t need to take any action; you’ll be renewed automatically. Thanks again, and on that note, let’s get to it!
🏀 Game Night 🏙
Who: Knicks vs Raptors
When: 7:30 pm
Who’s out: So much for my hunch that Nerlens Noel would be back last week. Six games down, still no Noel. He’s seemingly been 50/50 for a week now. For Toronto, Pascal Siakam has yet to play a game this season, although it’s possible he will make his season debut tonight.
Halftime Zoom: Click here to enter!
What to look for: So far this year, the Knicks have played up or down to their competition. That gets tricky with the Raptors, who are only 4-3 but have the 8th ranked net rating in the NBA, just one spot back of New York. Hopefully the Knicks will respect the opponent for the damage they can do, particularly on defense, where the Raptors force the third most turnovers in the league. They’re also the best offensive rebounding team in the sport, so New York’s bigs will have to be on high alert. This will be the best test yet for the Knicks 2nd ranked offense, but on the bright side, the Raptors struggle to shoot it like, well…last year’s Knicks, ranking 27th in effective field goal percentage.
Tweet of the Weekend
I couldn’t help myself:
A new feature of the Knicks Film School Newsletter! Figure we should enjoy every ounce of this for as long as it lasts:
Game Recap: Knicks 123, Pelicans 117
⌚️ TL;DW: The Knicks jumped out to a 14-3 lead and looked to be on their way to a laugher. From that point forward though, every time the Knicks would push the lead close to a breaking point, they would allow the Pelicans back in with a combination of sloppy ball control, poor shot selection and lapses on defense. All this culminated in just a two-point lead with under 90 seconds to go, which is when a certain Canadian went into his bag one last time and put the finishing touches on the game of young pro career.
⓵ RJ Barrett isn’t messing around. I wrote a whole special edition of the newsletter on RJ’s exploits yesterday, and have a full breakdown on his best plays below. In short, the Knicks played like booty so Barrett could have his coming out party.
⓶ The Knicks struggle with prosperity. For as great as we feel about this season, imagine where our euphoria levels would be if they hadn’t brain farted away a) the last 90 seconds of regulation in the Boston game, b) the entire second Magic game, c) the last three minutes of the Bulls game, and d) a handful of double digit leads versus New Orleans. New York has played (and certainly shot) well enough at times to look like a contender, but the inconsistency is holding back any real talk of such things.
⓷ Julius is not in a great place. As more than a few people pointed out on Twitter yesterday, Randle had some not great moments involving forced shots, off-ball body language and a lack of hustle getting back on defense. One moment in particular - when the Knicks were up 111-102 and he air-balled a fadeaway 16-footer, leading to a Pels fast break that cut the margin to seven and gave the home team some life - could have been extremely costly.
All that being said, as someone wisely pointed out to me after the game, Randle could have forced the issue far more than he did. This was only the fifth time in the last three seasons he attempted fewer than 10 field goals, and that came despite the Pelicans tempting him with small and/or young defenders throughout the game.
Everyone is allowed an off night and even an off week (35.5 percent shooting over the last four games). Randle seems to be working his way through how teams are playing him right now, and is perhaps starting to get frustrated. It’s understandable.
It just can’t last too much longer if this team hopes to accomplish its goals.
Obi Toppin Moment of the Day
With Taj back, Tom Thibodeau has (predictably) reverted back to form and is strictly playing Obi backup minutes at the four. He’s averaged just under 12 minutes over the last four games after playing over 50 combined between the first two.
Even so, Toppin continues to make his impact felt. He may not have enough to get a star on most nights now, but he’s been impressive enough to warrant his own section here, which today is dedicated to a really nice defensive sequence Obi had midway through the second quarter:
Obi starts off by hedging to the middle, as is his responsibility covering the weak side corner. Once the ball swings there, Immanuel Quickley immediately recognizes he should take on Toppin’s assignment, which then prompts Obi to correctly read that his new responsibility is Kira Lewis Jr out beyond the arc.
As you may remember from our pre-draft coverage before last season, Lewis is not slow human. He sizes Toppin up and then turns on the jets, only for the big man to stay with him every step of the way, swatting his shot out of bounds. A couple plays later, he pulled a Mitch and swatted a 3-point attempt from the top of the key, and then right before he checked out for good in the fourth, gave an extra effort on a contest that resulted in a turnover.
In short, Toppin is making his impact felt in the minutes he’s receiving. That’s all we (and the Knicks) can ask for.
💫 Stars of the Game 💫
⭐️ Taj Gibson: Part of the reason I can’t complain too vociferously about Obi’s lack of PT is because Taj has been so damn good of late. What doesn’t he do on this play in the third quarter?
Gibson played 21 invaluable minutes in this game and was a better matchup for the beastly Jonas Valanciunas than Robinson. His 13 points and seven boards, including four on the offensive glass, were all vital. He is the NBA’s ageless wonder.
⭐️ ⭐️ Kemba Walker: How’s this for a fun stat: among the 142 players who have attempted at least 20 threes on the year, the Knicks two point guards rank second and third in the NBA in accuracy, with Kemba at 57.9 percent on 38 attempts and Rose at 54.2 percent on 24 attempts. Rose’s ability to rise, fire and convert from deep has been a game changer for him, but Walker’s off-the-dribble gravity is what has really taken this offense (2nd best in basketball) to a new level. After draining 4-of-7 from deep on Saturday and finishing with 19 points and five dimes, it’s fair to say he’s given the Knicks exactly what they need.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ RJ Barrett: Over the course of his short NBA career, if there are three areas of improvement that fans have wanted to see from RJ Barrett, they would be these, in some order: finishing, off-the-dribble shooting, and playmaking.
What made Saturday night such an impressive showing wasn’t that Barrett scored 35 points, dished six assists and made six threes; it was how and when he did all of these things. Sometimes, we have to parse out small signs of growth from a larger mixed bag. Against the Pelicans, we got it all on one neat and tidy silver platter.
If you’re looking for one reason why a player who has taken a greater percentage of his shots around the rim than almost any young wing in the league continues to be left off these assorted rankings, look no further than some of the uglier finishes he’s had over his first few years. If we’re keeping it real, you won’t have to look very far.
The above move- a patient dribble-drive in which Barrett calmly squares up and rises towards the hoop against a weaker defender - is the sort of thing that has eluded him in the past. Similarly, RJ is able to pull off such a smooth finish on the play below because of the nifty hesitation he employs as he’s curling around the screen.
(Switching to his off hand to complete the bucket is a nice little bonus.)
It hasn’t been on a ton of attempts - just 23 in total - but the fact that Barrett is shooting 74 percent on shots around the rim is perhaps the most encouraging Knicks stat of the first six games. That ranks in the 73rd percentile league-wide for wings according to Cleaning the Glass, and is a far cry from his first two years when he was in the bottom quarter of the NBA.
Next up, playmaking:
Some assists are cheapies, where the rock happens to come off the passers hands before the scorer does all the real work. None of RJ’s dimes on Saturday night were of that variety.
The above lob to Mitchell Robinson was one of five dimes he had to his centers on the evening, all of which resulted in Barrett drawing the attention of the defense and then making a perfectly timed and placed pass. This goes hand in hand with the finishing, because if defenses don’t fear his ability to complete the play on his own, they won’t abandon the man in the dunker’s spot.
Here, he waits until the last second to dump it off to Taj in a nifty bit of areal acrobatics:
And then there was his one assist for a 3-pointer on the night, where Barrett manages to do quite a bit of manipulation in a very short period of time:
Notice that Valanciunas has to abandon Mitch at the last second to ensure RJ doesn’t get a good look at the rim. Devonte’ Graham, guarding Kemba in the corner, has to abandon his man to cover Robinson. Barrett - in mid-air, mind you - then delivers the rock to its proper destination.
Last but not least, we get to the really exciting stuff:
Talk about stones.
This was a moment in the game in which the pressure was on. Following Kemba’s step back 3-pointer with 3:34 to go, the Pelicans had scored nine straight points and had every ounce of available momentum. Had this shot not gone in with 1:39 to go and the Knicks up just two, I’m convinced they would have lost.
Thankfully, it did, and they didn’t. It also wasn’t his most impressive three of the night (or, arguably, his most important one, if you’re more focused on the long term ceiling of this team, and by extension, the ceiling of their best prospect):
That, my friends, is the step back, and if RJ starts hitting it with any sort of regularity, it’s game over. We know from his play with Team Canada over the summer that he’s been working on it. Now its just a matter of perfecting it. So far, so good.
Add it all up, and I’m not sure I can remember being as impressed by a single game as I was by Barrett’s effort on Saturday. It was everything we’ve been wanting, with real stakes. Was the fact that it happened in front of his good buddy from Duke, who may or may not be seeking greener pastures in a few years? Who’s to say.
Regardless of the reason, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle now. The wish of many a Knicks fan has been granted. RJ Barrett has arrived.
Before We Go…
A special shout out to my friend and the original author of this newsletter, Jeffrey Bellone. After starting a Mets newsletter from scratch just like he did this one, he’s now turned his attention to hockey, and more specifically, the New York Islanders!
If you’re a hockey fan in the New York area, feel free to subscribe for free to Islex Fix so you can get a daily dose of Islanders news just like you do with hoops. Enjoy!
I hate you Andrew
Seth Curry is first at 63 percent on 27 attempts.