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With A Thud
New York came out flat on Saturday. Let's look at all that went wrong, and how they can fix it.
Good morning. Hopefully you’ve fully recovered from that disaster. If you haven’t, I have good news (that could also be terrible news if New York comes out with the same energy in Game 4):
There’s another game tonight.
🏙 Game Night 🏙
When: 7:30 pm
Personal Injury Report presented by Weiss & Rosenbloom: Immanuel Quickley, who had the misfortune of Bam Adebayo falling onto his ankle in Game 3, is listed as DOUBTFUL with a sprain. Thibs was asked yesterday if either Evan Fournier or Derrick Rose could get run, and he said everything was on the table.
Halftime: click here to enter.
Saturday Recap: Knicks 86, Heat 105
⌚️ 30 Seconds or Less: The Knicks played like shit and got their ass kicked.
(Oh I’m sorry, did you want more detail? My apologies…)
The Knicks played like shit and got their ass kicked by a Miami team that was far, far more ready for battle than they were. New York couldn’t hit shot, going just 8-for-40 from downtown and barely making a third of their total field goal attempts, and were fortunate not to lose by double the eventual margin of defeat, what with the Heat hitting just 22 percent of their own 3-pointers. Making matters worse, the process was poor on both ends and at no point did it feel like they were a real threat to win this game.
With A Thud
Of all the nice things that came from the Knicks beating the Cavs in the first round last week, atop my list was the seemingly permanent sheen it put on this season, and by extension, the state of the franchise.
As I wrote after the Game 2 win against the Heat - my oh my, does that ever seem like ages ago - New York is the lone conference semifinalist that wasn’t supposed to be here. Even against a 8th seed (and really a 7th seed entering the playoffs) it was hard to envision an outcome for this series that could erase the positive vibes coming out of the victory over Cleveland. That they won that series, in the way they did, over who they did, was so overwhelmingly positive. Win or lose in round two, they were playing with house money.
It was a quaint thought. And while all of the same arguments that applied going into Game 3 still apply today - young roster with upside, lots of picks, an ascending star point guard, solid roster flexibility, etc, etc - a lot of bloom appeared to come off the rose on Sunday afternoon in Miami.
That begins with yet another round of questions about a coach for whom a majority of this fanbase retains latent distrust going back to last season (and for some, from the day he was hired). After sticking with the same starting lineup since mid-November, now, in the most stressful of environments, Tom Thibodeau decided to make a change. It has begged an obvious question: why disrupt a formula that seemed to be working so well, especially when the change exacerbates New York’s Achilles heel of a lack of willing (and effective) outside shooting?
There are certainly arguments in favor of his pivot. For instance, in an extremely small sample size of 29 postseason minutes, the year-long starting five has generated just 83.6 points per 100 possessions, whereas with Hart in place of Grimes, the Knicks went into Saturday with a playoff offensive rating of 124.8 and were undefeated during the five games in which that five-man grouping touched the court together. Going back to the regular season, New York also outscored teams by 11.9 points per 100 possessions in the 750 minutes Hart played - a gangbusters number that underscored a positive impact seemingly impervious to situational variability. When you throw in the fact that Grimes is shooting 29 percent from the field and 17 percent from deep in the postseason, there’s more logic at play here than is being made out.
At the same time, there is no denying that there was a working formula here - one that impacted the starting lineup (with Grimes always being an available outlet who demanded the defense’s attention) and the bench (with Hart injecting a necessary jolt of energy to that group, and still being available to close halves/games). In making the change when he did, there is a sense that Thibodeau tried to get a leg up on the Heat and ended up playing right into their hands.
On that note, it seems relevant that the Brunson-RJ-Hart-Randle-Robinson quintet saw just 11 minutes of court time together in the regular season - a figure that has already been exceeded sixfold in the playoffs. Because of Cleveland’s small guards and bony bigs who didn’t want the smoke, this lineup made all the sense in the world in round one. Can the same be said against a more disciplined Miami team that seems far better equipped to keep the Knicks out of the paint and off the offensive glass?
Speaking of not wanting the smoke, we get to the second reason why this loss took so much bloom off the rose:
Saturday was the most glaring (if not the first) example of a game this season where the Knicks were clearly outhustled and outworked by a more physical team. We don’t need more than one hand to count the number of times during the Thibodeau era where this has been the case. For a team whose bedrock is laid in always being the tougher squad on the court, this performance was as unnerving as anything we’ve seen.
Equally unnerving, and adding to the suddenly shaky foundation, was how poor the Knicks’ process was on offense. Whether Grimes for Hart is the elixir or it isn’t, New York did themselves no favors in their early offensive execution, and it was obvious from the very first possession of the game:
There were a few issues that became evident almost immediately, and they ended up setting the tone for the whole afternoon. The result is that the Knicks scored just 16 points in the first 11 minutes, falling behind by double digits and never really recovering.
For one, there was little passing to be found. New York generated just three assists in the first 18 minutes of action, and one of those was the result of some generous scorekeeping, with Josh Hart finding Julius Randle on a hit ahead pass in semi-transition that Randle then turned into a contested driving layup against a set Bam Adebayo. As we see from the play above, trust the pass they did not.
By the same token, there was but one drive & kick in the opening frame, and even that framing is debatable. On the play in question, Brunson drove and was doubled hard from the corner. While he managed to get the ball to an open Hart, Hart’s man succeeded in bothering the pass enough that he couldn’t catch it cleanly in his shooting pocket. The result was a missed step-back over a solid contest.
Other than that, there was no evidence of something that has become a staple of the Knicks’ offense - the primary method by which they generate the threes they want to take. Without those drive and kick opportunities, New York ended up heaving up triples in transition to make up the difference. Those are the furthest thing from their bread and butter imaginable.
And then there’s the matter of who they were shooting against. In total, not counting the extension of possessions after offensive rebounds, 13 of New York’s 20 shot attempts in the first 11 minutes came against defenders other than Bam or Jimmy. That’s far too small a ratio when facing a team that has two weak defenders and at least one so so defender on the court at all times. Sure enough, only one of the seven attempts against Adebayo or Butler went down - the aforementioned Randle drive.
As for the 13 shots in that early stretch that came against non-Butler/Bam defenders, there were a few that actually displayed decent offensive process, and proof that New York’s current alignment can work given the right sideline-to-sideline floor balance and a little bit of movement:
It’s worth noting here, of course, that Quentin Grimes had just entered the game, thus drawing Butler’s attention to the corner. Even so, Kevin Love was the low man because Randle had drawn Bam away from the hoop - one of the few times Julius was in a position to make a play that didn’t involve him going one-on-one for a score.
On another nice first quarter possession that ended up with a basket, New York cleared out the strong side and allowed Jalen Brunson to get Gabe Vincent deep into the post. It resulted in maybe his easiest basket of the game. Again: good process often equals good results.
But these were the exceptions and not the rule. The norm was something much closer to this:
This was one of three long twos Brunson put up in the first quarter, all of which missed. In total, he took 11 shots from 15 feet or more in this game (six twos and five threes) and made two.
The issue here is twofold. For one, Brunson hasn’t been as good outside of the restricted area and the short midrange in the playoffs as he was in the regular season, falling from 48 percent on long twos and 42 percent on threes to 33 percent on long twos and 28 percent on threes. The drop off hasn’t been nearly as severe as Randle (35 percent on all mid-rangers, short and long, and 21 percent from deep) but it has still put a signifiant dent into New York’s offense.
At the same time, Brunson doesn’t have many better options. Part of this is the trickle down effect of Miami not respecting New York’s other main scorers (look how far off RJ and Julius that Jimmy and Bam are playing) but it’s also positioning and personnel. Looking at the play above, it’s Josh Hart in the corner. While Hart has hit his threes at a very good rate, especially from the corner, he has a much slower release than Grimes, and thus, there is no hesitation by Max Strus to play off of him and essentially double Brunson.
But even a stymied Brunson is killing it in this series if we’re judging him by the overall offensive output we’ve seen, scoring 75 points on 62 shots. The problem is that he has quickly become the only reliable generator of New York’s offense, especially now that Miami adjusted to put Jimmy Butler on RJ Barrett and rely on help defenders to neutralize New York’s point guard - an incredibly savvy move by Spo.
The other guy who the Knicks should be able to rely upon? That guy is the last and probably the biggest reason the bloom is off the rose, and why if this series continues on this trend, the offseason is going to feature many of the same dicy question marks as the last two summers.
The worst part about relying on Julius Randle is that you can often tell from the first few minutes of a game whether he’s bringing the right energy. When he’s bringing it, there are few things in the NBA more exciting. He’s that talented - a perfect blend of skill and physicality who can wreak havoc on an opposing game plan.
But when he isn’t? Yeesh. Hold your nose and prepare for a long 48 minutes, because there are few things more dispiriting than the version of Julius that isn’t engaged and isn’t giving anything close to passable effort.
Mere moments into this one, you could tell which version we were getting. On the play above, for example, Randle gives what can barely be described as a half-hearted attempt to stick with Strus as he repositions to the corner. Blame this on the game plan to stop Jimmy at all costs if you want, but there’s a way to do that with energy and there’s a way not to. This is preseason effort right here, and it didn’t get any better as the game went on.
His level of engagement wasn’t much better on offense.
This is a play from late in the first, when Grimes was in the game to inject some much needed spacing.
Randle had an opportunity to hit him with a quick pass after he grabbed the rebound, but instead decided to be more methodical. Fine - let’s see where it goes, right?
Boom: something good happens when New York draws the switch. Brunson tries to take the initial advantage but can’t, in part because Lowry is playing off of Randle and in part because Jimmy is in perfect position defending Grimes - just close enough that he can probably deter a shot but also close enough to Brunson to wall off the lane. Still, Jalen should probably kick to the corner and keep the train moving.
Instead, he tosses it back to Julius, who has Kyle Lowry on him. That’s bad news for Miami, and immediately, Caleb Martin comes over as Brunson repositions to the corner. At the point, the pass HAS to go to Brunson. Here’s what happens instead:
Finding an open shooter in the corner, even one in a relative slump like Brunson, shouldn’t be this difficult.
The Knicks need a far better version of Julius at both ends if they’re going to have a chance in this series. They will also need Brunson to go from star to supernova, at least for stretches here and there. They will need their 3-point shooters to hit some shots, at some point, at a decent rate. And yes, they will need to coach to do what he can to put all of the above players in better positions to succeed.
Most of all though, the Knicks need to approach Game 4 like their lives depend on it, and every game after that, for however long this series goes. They didn’t come close to that level of effort on Saturday, and it’s the biggest reason why no fan, no matter how optimistic or even-keeled, is feeling great at the moment.
I’ll even try to do my part to add motivation. Instead of awarding Stars of the Game for that miserable effort, I’m putting all six stars on the table for Game 4, for two reasons:
No one really deserves a star for Game 3
I still believe that this team has a huge effort in them, because every time they’ve had their backs against the wall, they’ve responded like the prideful group they are.
Those backs are pressed up against it right now. Lose tonight, and while there may technically be a tomorrow, the writing will be on the wall.
Show up or be on the brink. It’s that simple.