Wheels Falling Off?
The Knicks have suddenly lost four in a row and it feels like there's no end to the downturn in sight.
Good morning. Sports are funny. A week ago at this time, I was trying my best to remain grounded about a team that was 25-19 and a top-10 squad by any conceivable metric. Today, I’m looking at the schedule and wondering when, where and how they’re going to stumble upon their next win. Who knows what I’ll be writing about seven days from now.
Game Recap: Knicks 116, Raptors 125
⌚️30 Seconds or Less: For the third game in a row, New York’s defense was a no show to start the night, giving up 37 points in the first quarter as their nemesis from the north hit their first five shots from downtown and took an early 17-point lead. Seven first quarter turnovers against a team that feasts on giveaways didn’t help matter either.
That’s when Obi Toppin had his biggest impact in months, nailing four 3-pointers in the 2nd quarter to give the Knicks the jolt they needed. Behind a more spirited defensive effort, a bunch of offensive rebounds, and some of their best ball movement of the season en route to 30 assists on 40 made field goals, New York briefly took the lead late in the third before entering the 4th all tied up.
That’s when things went sour for the second game in a row. The Raps started off the final frame with a 13-2 run that gave them a cushion they’d never relinquish. After the Knicks did a nice job on the glass through three quarters, Toronto also dominated the boards in the fourth, eventually scoring 26 of the first 36 in the period to win this one going away.
🚫 Going Streaking: When the Knicks get going in one direction, they have a really tough time stopping the momentum. Over their last 25 games, New York has:
Won eight straight
Lost five straight
Won seven of eight, and now most recently…
Lost four straight
With their next two games coming against two of the best four teams by net rating in the NBA, their current slide may not be over just yet.
🚮 No-D: Last Sunday, the Knicks exited their win against the Detroit Pistons with the 10th ranked defense in basketball. Better yet, if you looked at the eight weeks they’d been playing with their preferred starting lineup, they ranked 5th - a big part of why they went 17-10 over that stretch.
Since the Pistons game, however, the Knicks have lost their mojo. They have given up 123, 116, 139 and 125 points in their last four games for a defensive rating of 130.3 - dead last in the league over these seven days. The loss of Mitchell Robinson has obviously been felt in a significant way, and without their anchor, New York has been lost.
They tried different things last night - drop coverage, switching, going under screens, going over screens - you name it. None of it worked particularly well. The Knicks are getting exposed at the point of attack, and while both the Raptors and Hawks were each bad matchups in their own way, with the offensive firepower prevalent through the league at the moment, there are very few soft spots on the schedule upcoming. They simply need to be better.
One bright spot: save for a few dry spells every game that are impossible for almost any team to completely eliminate, the Knicks continue to score the ball. They’re up to 6th in the NBA in total offense, a tenth of a point behind the Mavs for fifth place. Better yet, New York had 57 assists this weekend after a few weeks’ worth of games overly dominated by iso-ball. The rock moved much better in these two games.
Now if they can just figure out how to get stops, all may not be lost just yet.
About Friday Night: Knicks 124, Hawks 139
⌚️60 Seconds or Less: The path to getting there was very different from the Wizards game on Wednesday, but the result was the same: New York’s second straight double-digit loss after not having any for more than six weeks.
Unlike when they couldn’t generate any solid offense against Washington, the Knicks couldn’t miss out of the gate in Atlanta, shooting 80 percent from the field in the first quarter and 71 percent for the half. Despite their proficiency, New York went into halftime up by just three thanks to eight Hawks offensive rebounds, seven turnovers, and a complete inability to corral Trae Young or Dejounte Murray.
The dominance of Atlanta’s backcourt continued in a back & forth third. Young fueled a 16-1 Hawks run before Julius Randle helped lead an 11-2 Knicks response en route to a 17-point quarter for the power forward. Instead of a classic finish though, the scales finally tipped for good in the fourth, as Atlanta outpaced New York 20-4 to begin the final frame. The road team never seriously threatened down the stretch.
☠️ Dropped to Death: For all the benefits Mitchell Robinson brings as New York’s starting center, the all-encompassing luxury he provides on the defensive end is arguably the most important. Regardless of what else the Knicks’ perimeter defenders do or don’t do, Robinson is usually patrolling the restricted area, lurking, giving all entrants pause before they attempt to put up a shot.
Now, with Robinson gone, so is the security blanket he provides. In his place, the Knicks have three options in terms of personnel: Jericho Sims, Isaiah Hartenstein, or going small. None inspired much confidence against a Hawks team especially well-suited to exploit their new weakness.
New York started by throwing second-year big man Jericho Sims into the deep end against as tough a matchup as he’s ever going to see. After struggling to stay afloat in the early going (the Hawks scored 24 points in the first five minutes), he acclimated himself as well as could reasonably be expected. Still, there are differences between him and Mitch that Sims just can’t do anything about.
While the former Texas Longhorn is no one’s idea of a small human, he’s 6'10" with an 8'10" standing reach and a 7'3" wingspan. Compare that to Robinson, who is a legit seven feet with a 9'3" standing reach and a 7'4" wingspan. Those differences may not seem like a big deal, but sometimes - like when you’re facing the board-gobbling Clint Capela - basketball can become a game of inches.
Moving forward, Sims’ overall play and improvement throughout the game was arguably the most encouraging thing to come out of Friday night. The same cannot be said, however, of his backup…
…Isaiah Hartenstein, who continues to be stuck in no-man’s land on this roster.
All season long, anytime Hart has been put in drop coverage against perimeter players, it has been a dicy proposition. The goal, as is always the case with Thibodeau teams, is to at least take the tastiest option off the table and ensure opponents don’t get unfettered access to shots in the restricted area. Because Hartenstein has additional issues on the defensive glass (and, frankly, has just executed drop coverage poorly), this scheme has rarely yielded positive results, but against Atlanta’s guards, it was even more of a recipe for disaster.
That’ was also because of some poor point-of-attack defense from just about everyone on the roster. Quentin Grimes got into foul trouble almost immediately against Trae Young and later got baited into a flagrant one on a 3-point attempt. Deuce McBride was exposed for what he is: a severely undersized pitbull who bigger dogs can take advantage of - and he was, repeatedly, by Dejounte Murray. RJ simply isn’t navigating screens or moving well enough laterally to put up a fight.
Immanuel Quickley was the best of the lot, but even he had his issues:
This last clip is also an example of New York’s last option, which is to have Julius Randle or Obi Toppin serve as the last line of defense. Sims is in the game here, but what transpires on the possession is a good look at the perils of taking a center off the court. Thibs went with the Obi / Randle combo for a little under two minutes in the fourth and they gave up an 8-1 run.
With how little Hartenstein is giving the Knicks at either end, the smaller front court seems like a pivot worth revisiting, especially if Toppin is back to being a meaningful offensive contributor like he was on Sunday night. Still, there are no easy answers for this group for as long as Robinson is on the sidelines.
💫 Stars of the Weekend 💫
⭐️ Obi Toppin: Gets the nod for the last spot over Jericho Sims (who was 11-for-11 this weekend and is doing his damnedest Mitch impersonation, giving the Knicks a glimmer of hope that they can survive Robinson’s loss in one piece) and Immanuel Quickley, who missed last night’s game with a sore knee but was the best Knick on the court vs Atlanta. Maybe they can figure out how to have a representative NBA defense without Mitch, but there’s no way they can survive the extended absence of both players. Hopefully it’s a one-game blip for IQ.
So the honor goes to Obi, who single-handedly changed the game in the second quarter with four made triples in less than three minutes that sliced the lead from 16 to seven. And yet, my favorite play from him came immediately after the final make from downtown:
If ever a player had the full green light, it was Obi Toppin right here, having barely touched rim thus far in the game. And yet, he bypasses what would have been a decent shot for a much better one. This drive and dish was a reminder of how helpful Obi can be as a cog in a good offense - not that we should have forgotten.
His reward? A 3:10 stint at the start of the fourth quarter, and then…bupkis.
That, in a vacuum, is the sort of thing that makes you wonder whether Tom Thibodeau overheard Toppin insulting his mother before this game. Otherwise, to show a hot player such little reward seems inexplicable.
To some extent, it is. Until you remember who this coach is and the where his inflexibility is rooted. Rim protection and defensive rebounding lie at the core of Thibodeau’s basketball belief system. To him, skimping in those areas is criminal, and unless you’re down a bunch with time running low, there’s no good reason not to have to true center on the floor. It’s also not like Obi’s presence prevented a bad start to the fourth, or that he was without criticism during that time:
Here’s the thing though: without Mitch, the Knicks ideal plan of attack has gone up in smoke. Isaiah Hartenstein, as we an see from this same clip, isn’t giving you nearly enough of what you’d expect from a traditional five-man. His command of the painted area is on par with my command of Swahili. It’s non-existent.
While Sims can and should get a ton of minutes with Robinson out, there’s no reason that more experimentation with small-ball shouldn’t also be an option. It didn’t work against the Hawks, but it’s not like the much larger sample size of Hartenstein has been much better. On nights where Obi has it going - and he certainly did in Toronto - there’s little reason not to extend the leash and give the pairing of power forwards a try.
⭐️ ⭐️ RJ Barrett: Looking at his stat lines, these were as good as any back-to-back performances Barrett has had all year. After 23 points on 16 shots against the Hawks, RJ put up 30 on 18 attempts last night. The most important part of those lines: seven makes in 13 tries from behind the arc. For the Knicks offense to be good, he needs to nail enough open looks from deep.
Toss in five assists, including a few pretty dime drops on the evening…
…and it’s fair to say that RJ is all the way back from his injured finger.
So why not three stars? Because right now, Julius Randle is just the more complete player, and that manifested itself in several ways. For one, it’s unclear where exactly Tom Thibodeau can use Barrett such that he’s a not a weakness on defense, let alone a strength. He is routinely getting taken out of plays with a high screen, and while that bug infiltrated the entire roster over the weekend, it is not a new occurrence for this player. On the flip side, when he’s matched up with a bigger dude, the results are equally bad.
There are also momentary lapses of judgment and poise at the worst times.
RJ has done really well to become at least respectable from floater range this season, and is now in the 45th percentile for wings according to Cleaning the Glass. This should no longer be considered a terrible shot off his hands.
But when the guy in the corner had flames shooting from his butt for his entire first half stint (and has shown himself capable of executing the next drive/kick action in the face of a solid close out), that pass has to be made. This game was arguably lost in the opening minutes of the fourth, when first Brunson and then Randle sat. RJ’s struggles running the offense in their absence are why so many people are calling for a 48-minute stagger of Jalen and Julius.
But a full stagger would lessen the total time that New York’s two best players are on the court together, which will have a trickle-down effect they’d probably rather avoid. They can avoid it…but Barrett has to be better. If he can just consistently avoid forcing shots that the percentages say aren't the best looks, it would go a long way towards surviving non-Brunson/Randle stints and living to tell the tale.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Julius Randle: Not a perfect choice, but the best of a middling lot.
Randle continued his board dominance with 19 rebounds last night, one short of his career high. He also had eight assists and 23 points on 14 shots. He joined David Lee, Jerry Lucas, Willis Reed (who did it twice) and Walt Bellamy as the only Knicks in history to put up 23, 19 & 8 in a single game. He also became the fifth player in the NBA to hit all those marks in one game this season, joining Giannis, Luka, Jokic and Domantas Sabonis.
For Randle, perfect has often been the enemy of the good. Last season, we saw him trying to work through his issues in real time, and in doing so, move farther and farther away from the player we all fell in love with.
Lately however, while his play certainly hasn’t been perfect, it has been very, very good.
Perhaps more than ever, Randle is taking what the defense is giving him and reacting in ways that have the greatest positive impact on his team. It took him a little while to get there last night, as the Raps forced him into four early turnovers with their aggressive style, but he stuck with it, and for most of the last three quarters, made almost every correct play when he had the ball.
I have toggled back and forth between who of Randle and Brunson is New York’s best player and most worthy All-Star candidate this season. The counting stats, advanced numbers and on/off data all say it’s Julius, and yet Jalen feels like the correct choice with how different the team has seemed compared to last year. Neither is above a bad offensive game, but both have done a nice job of helping in other ways when those nights transpire.
I don’t know which is the right choice. But someone on this team deserves to make the final ASG roster, even with the recent slide. Julius has done a great job making the decision a hard one.
See y’all soon! #BlackLivesMatter
Thibs clearly saw enough of the RJ/Barnes matchup after the last game, and with OG Anunoby out, tried to avoid Barrett having to guard Scottie whenever he could.
I did’t clip in, but on the ensuing defensive possession, RJ was cross-matched with Barnes, got taken into the post, and initially forced a miss. But instead of going hard after the board, Barrett stood still with his arms up to sell the fact that he hadn’t fouled. Scottie simply grabbed his own miss, and then as RJ reacted too late, went back up for the and-one. For a guy as big as strong as Barrett, it is incredible how often he feels like a non-entity on the defensive end. At some point, this needs to change.