Monday NBA Roundup: New York Knicks Finding Fresh Identity

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 15, 2016

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 14:  Kristaps Porzingis #6 of the New York Knicks drives to the basket against J.J. Barea #5 of the Dallas Mavericks during the game on November 14, 2016 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Halfway through yet another abysmal defensive performance against the shell of the Dallas Mavericks on Monday, the New York Knicks steered into the skid.

And it worked.

A halftime lineup switch put Justin Holiday into the first unit ahead of Joakim Noah, which bumped Kristaps Porzingis over to the center spot. A leaner, quicker, more offensively capable Knicks team put on a 19-6 run to start the third quarter, turned a deficit into a comfortable lead and went on to bury a Mavs club playing without Dirk Nowitzki and Deron Williams.

New York won, 93-77.

The Knicks—plagued by an atrocious foul rate, the worst defensive rating in the league and a nightly gag reel of miscommunications and poor effort on D—basically said, "Screw it. We can't be any worse. We might as well try to score."

Going smaller, shelving Noah and spacing the floor didn't address the Knicks' great and glaring flaw. It didn't shore up the interior or unleash some rabid switch-everything quintet of greyhounds. That wasn't the point.

But you know what? It scored enough to win the game.

And at this point, with this roster, leaning on a strength instead of fighting against a seemingly insurmountable weakness seems like a pretty good idea. Because nothing we saw in that first half suggested the Knicks were any closer to sorting out their defensive clown show.

There were lapses in communication and rotation gaffes, as NBA analyst Nate Duncan highlighted here:

Even simpler and more troubling, Jared Dubin noted the inexplicable failure to identify threats:

If you wanted to get generous about it, you could have pointed to Kurt Rambis' recent takeover of defensive responsibilities and blame the poor first-half showing on an adjustment period. Porzingis alluded to exactly that on Saturday after losing to the Toronto Raptors, but he was quick to tell Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News: "But not that many things changed. Just a few calls changed, and it’s on us to really figure this thing out."

Again, a lineup tweak won't fix New York's defense. Dallas scored exactly one fewer point in the second half than the first.

But the offensive benefits were obvious.

Porzingis took Andrew Bogut out into space and got whatever he wanted. It was enough to trigger Bogut's patented "I'm having a hard time guarding this guy, so I'll just foul a lot and get myself out of the game" move that observers familiar with his work for the Golden State Warriors could appreciate.

In finishing with 24 points and 11 rebounds on 8-of-16 shooting, KP showed what he could do against overmatched centers. And we already know what he's capable of against smaller foes:

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Nowitzki approved, per Earl K. Sneed of Mavs.com:

Remember, too, Porzingis isn't without his uses on defense if he just keeps things simple:

Sometimes, it's as basic as 7'3" being 7'3".

Now, because we're talking about the Knicks, and no success can ever be total, this moderate sign of progress is also a huge problem.

New York signed Noah to a four-year deal this past offseason, which means it won't be so easy to marginalize him. But at least a franchise historically driven by a win-now mentality can look at the poor defense with Noah and the more palatable offense without him and conclude that the best strategy for short-term success is moving away from the high-priced veteran.

At the very least, the Knicks have to give their second-half group more looks going forward. Holiday scored 16 points and posted a team-high plus-30 on the night, and it's long been obvious that Carmelo Anthony (24 points) gets cleaner looks as a power forward.

The Knicks rebuilt this team over the summer in hopes of competing, at least, for a playoff spot. And Noah's presence on defense was a big part of that.

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 12: Joakim Noah #13 of the New York Knicks during NBA game action against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre on November 12, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading an
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Small sample size and all, it now feels like pivoting away from that plan—and embracing an offensive identity keyed by Porzingis at center—makes the most sense. And yes, there are legions of Knicks fans pounding their heads against walls, shouting "of course it does!".

It's been obvious for a while, and it certainly squares ideologically with New York's future, which will be built around KP.

There's something unnerving about trusting a lineup that probably won't defend, especially when defense has been the biggest problem in this young season. But maybe there's also something brave about it.

Maybe the Knicks are finally embracing who they should have been all along.

Do Not Look Directly at the Orlando Magic's Offense

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Frank Vogel lost in his return to Indiana, and he lost badly. But, man, did he lose on his terms.

An utterly unwatchable 88-69 fall to the Indiana Pacers dropped Vogel's Orlando Magic to 4-7 and, as you'd expect, plunged their offensive rating to 96.7, 28th in the league. At least the Magic dragged the Pacers down with them, producing the lowest-scoring game of the season.

Orlando snared an emotional win at Oklahoma City on Sunday, beating the Thunder on Serge Ibaka's pull-up with less than a second remaining, and it managed 119 points during that one. So heavy legs were definitely a factor in the anemic output against Indiana.

Both teams shot under 40 percent, and they were a combined 18-of-49 from three-point range. For Vogel, who became the winningest Pacers coach in NBA history by clamping down on D and trotting out some of the ugliest offenses in recent memory, at least his homecoming felt familiar.

There's been a lot of talk about awful defense and unappealing basketball so far, so here's Jeff Teague with the Chris Paul-inspired yo-yo fake and breakaway dunk.

There. Palate cleansed.

Russell Westbrook and Fatigue Are Unacquainted

Less than 24 hours before Russell Westbrook did that, he played 38 minutes and posted a line of 41 points, 16 assists and 12 rebounds.

My point, I guess, is that Russ may not actually know he's supposed to be tired. So no one tell him, OK?

Unfortunately, another highlight-riddled night of stat-stuffery (Westbrook finished with 33 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists) produced a familiar result: The Oklahoma City Thunder dropped their fourth straight game, this one a 104-88 loss to the Detroit Pistons.

Yes, the Thunder were playing the second leg of a back-to-back. But Andre Drummond didn't suit up, which should have given an OKC club known for owning the boards a fighting chance. The Thunder only out-rebounded Detroit by a margin of 51-47, though.

More troubling: This was yet another loss highlighting systemic issues that have often rendered Westbrook's heroics ineffectual.

Royce Young of ESPN.com noted the spacing crunch that hampers Steven Adams' rolls to the rim (and, to a larger extent, hamstrings everyone playing off the ball):

The Thunder can hope Domantas Sabonis' developing stroke becomes a consistent threat, and they can always sacrifice defense by turning to Anthony Morrow on the wing. But barring personnel changes or surprising growth from the shooters already on the roster, Oklahoma City's perimeter offense may never stabilize—it shot just 5-of-27 from deep—no matter how high Westbrook flies.

Marcus Smart Will Deceive You

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Flops like the one Marcus Smart pulled to earn a charge call on Solomon Hill are supposed to be frustrating, and they definitely shouldn't elicit smiles.

But when the perpetrator himself owns up to it with a smirk, you've got to enjoy it a little.

Smart did everything he could (within and beyond the bounds of the rules) to get his battered Boston Celtics over against the New Orleans Pelicans. It also can't go unmentioned that Isaiah Thomas did lead a fourth-quarter surge and finished with 37 points. 

Unfortunately, the absence of Al Horford and Jae Crowder proved to be too much for Smart's production and acting chops to overcome. And a little karma crept in as he threw an inbounds pass away on what could have been the Celtics' go-ahead possession with 14 seconds left, via Brian Robb of Bleacher Report:

Those subscribing to the idea of a balanced universe might also cite Tim Frazier duping Kelly Olynyk into fouling him with 2.5 seconds remaining, leading to the game-winning free throws.

The Pels earned their second win of the year by a final of 106-105.

Boston hasn't gotten off to the start it wanted, but at least it can count on Smart and Thomas going the extra mile until reinforcements arrive.

The Beard Is the Boss

Nov 14, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts after a play during the second quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden approves (and then facilitates) his own requests for time off.

By blowtorching the Philadelphia 76ers for 23 points on 8-of-8 shooting in the first quarter of the Houston Rockets' 115-88 win Monday, Harden made sure he wouldn't touch his minutes average of 39.9 from the previous three games.

He played "only" 33 minutes, scoring 33 points to go along with nine assists and seven rebounds. That time total could have been even lower, but it may also be the case that Harden decides when he gets to keep playing, too, per Fran Blinebury of NBA.com:

Ideally, the rest of the Rockets could spell their prolific superstar by winning games like this without him, and maybe they'll be better equipped to do that when Patrick Beverley returns to theoretically bolster the starting lineup sometime this week, per Calvin Watkins of ESPN.com.

For now, though, Harden really does have to do everything himself—including blow games open so he can catch a breather.

The Heat Are Kids Now

Back-to-back NBA Finals meetings feel like ancient memories when you hear Gregg Popovich discuss a game between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs like this, per Paul Garcia of Project Spurs:

Yes, Ray Allen's shot in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals suddenly feels like it happened eons ago. And the Spurs' triumphant retribution the following year seems nearly as ancient.

The Spurs are different now, losing Tim Duncan to retirement but gaining the superstar version of Kawhi Leonard. But it's the Heat that are truly altered: Hassan Whiteside and Dion Waiters scored more than half of Miami's points on Monday, for example.

Fortunately, as Pop acknowledged in his comments following San Antonio's 94-90 win, the Heat tend to play hard regardless of personnel. Perhaps more importantly, they don't stay down for long. Pat Riley's tenure has been defined by aggressive moves and swift rebuilds. That will probably mean tanking this year, angling for picks and then swinging big in free agency.

The Heat and Spurs won't see each other again this season, but maybe it won't be too long until these teams square off in games with real stakes again.

Um, Rudy?

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - NOVEMBER 14:  Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz reacts to a play against the Memphis Grizzlies on November 14, 2016 at vivint.SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downlo
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

Rudy Gobert got into some foul trouble and chucked his mouthpiece in the Utah Jazz's disappointing 102-96 home loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. So maybe head coach Quin Snyder was sending a message.

But whatever amalgam of explanations you want to run with, it's still hard to justify sitting Utah's best defensive player for nearly the entire fourth quarter of a very winnable game—particularly when Gobert had posted a team-best plus-10 to that point in the game.

Utah was playing its sixth game in eight days, didn't have George Hill or Rodney Hood and may have succumbed to the familiar trap of returning home for the first game after a long road trip.

But still.

"Rudy wasn't playing good," Snyder told reporters afterward. "We had that lineup in, and those guys brought us back. Rudy knows that. Rudy was the first one cheering for them. That group that was playing at the end was playing the best basketball, so we went with them."

Again: plus-10.

The Jazz, snakebit by injury again, can't let games like this slip away—not if they want to finish among the West's top four.

Hopefully, Gobert doesn't take issue with the benching. Contrary to what Snyder's decision indicates, the Jazz need him.

Nothing Can Stop the Clippers

Winners of seven straight after pulverizing the Brooklyn Nets by a final score of 127-95, the 10-1 Los Angeles Clippers cannot be stopped.

Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated explained just how potent L.A. has been:

I mean, seriously, nothing could possibly derail these Clips. Unless, say, they concuss each other celebrating. But what are the chances of that?

Oh boy.

Follow Grant on Twitter and Facebook.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com. Current through games played Nov. 14.

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