5 Things Holding Back New York Knicks Despite Surprising Start
The surprising 9-7 New York Knicks have flashed sparkles of greatness, but not everything about them is as charming as a Doug McDermott back-cut.
Sure, let's celebrate every Enes Kanter putback, Tim Hardaway Jr. fast-break bucket and Kristaps Porzingis block, fadeaway, transition dunk and behind-the-back dribble. Let's mimic Hardaway's shoulder shimmy, Courtney Lee's snarl and Kyle O'Quinn's stomping, screaming sideline tomfoolery with all the gusto they deserve.
Let's also remember, however, the Knicks are barely above .500, and they have some matters to attend to if they want to avoid the derision of a Scott Perry what-is-this-mess lip curl.
Here are five issues that should be toward the top of New York's list.
Playing with a Lead
Oh what fun the Knicks were having during the first half on Nov. 13 against the Cleveland Cavaliers. McDermott smashed a huge full-speed putback dunk on the fast break, then Hardaway congratulated him with a chest bump while O'Quinn and Kanter laughed in delight on the sideline. Lee picked a pocket, turned it into a dunk, then Willy Hernangomez and Joakim Noah laughed gleefully from the bench. Dwyane Wade was called for a technical, the crowd went wild and Hardaway called to the stands for even more cheers.
And then they lost, 104-101.
The Knicks are the most clutch team in the league per NBA.com, with a clutch plus/minus of plus-5.8. Yet, twice they lost games in which they led by more than 20 points: The Detroit Pistons beat them 111-107 on October 21, and the Cavaliers used their fourth-quarter comeback to continue a five-game win streak that's turned around their season.
New York has had a few other close calls, too. The Knicks went into halftime Monday with a 56-44 lead over the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Clips pulled off a 15-0 third-quarter run to close the gap. They ended the first half Oct. 30 by dominating the Denver Nuggets by 22, who then outscored the Knicks 38-19 in the third during the most hapless quarter of basketball I have seen since watching my sister's sixth-grade team.
The Knicks have been ahead by 20 points or more eight times and have a plus/minus of minus-4.5 on those occasions.
True, thrilling runs and dueling lead changes are the stuff that sports memories are made of. Yet, forcing oneself to beat the same team two or three times on the same night might tucker out the Knicks over a long season.
The excruciating collapse against the Cavs was due in no small part to Kyle Korver, who has pummeled the Knicks on many occasions in many jerseys. Korver sank five threes in the fourth quarter alone—sometimes because of his exceptional shooting, sometimes because he used picks well and sometimes because no defender was within a city block of him.
Monday night against the Clippers, while Hardaway was directing an under-the-weather Frank Ntilikina to hurry up and cover an open Jawun Evans in the left corner, Lou Williams was sprinting to the right corner on a curl cut and Austin Rivers was nudging in the same direction to meet him with a crafty dish. Hardaway ran out late to contest and stopped short, leaving Williams, one of the most prolific three-ballers in the league for over 10 years, wide open for a swish.
The Knicks have allowed the league's highest percentage of three-pointers made per game (12.5) and are 19th in three-point percentage allowed (37.4%). Some of that is by design. They intentionally shut down the lane and force teams to shoot more difficult attempts on the outside. However, that tactic only works against teams for whom the three ball is a more difficult shot.
Against opponents that are in the top 10 in three-pointers attempted, (Cavaliers, Rockets, Raptors, Celtics, Nets and Thunder), the Knicks are 2-5. If they're unprepared to defend those teams, and simply unaware of personnel like Korver and Williams, there will be many losses in their future.
Madison Square Garden is once again becoming inhospitable to visiting teams. It's a raucous arena, roiling with hustle-hungry fans. The New York crowd is a true extra teammate for the Knicks. And that's incredible.
But I'm sorry—the crowd won't fly to Milwaukee in February. So, the Knicks must find a way to win games on the road without a force of 19,000 fans screaming their support.
The Knicks are a mere 1-4 on the road, and three of those losses were by more than 20 points. Gross.
Maybe Canada's first Cheesecake Factory, which just opened, gave the Knicks a free tour Friday before the game against the Toronto Raptors Nov. 17? That might explain the sluggishness, ball-hogging offense, ball-chasing defense and general ick of the performance in the 107-84 loss.
They slopped their way to a piddling 23.1 percent shooting in the first quarter and left the perimeter wide open. They pulled within 10 in the fourth quarter after strong minutes from Michael Beasley—who had 10 points, six rebounds and one assist in the fourth—but fell by 23 points just the same.
That's not the way to represent on the road.
It seems ludicrous to waste a moment worrying about a player who has averaged 20 points the past four games. And perhaps it is. Nevertheless, Kristaps Porzingis' 20.0 points on 34.2 percent shooting the past four contests is a notable drop from the 30.4 points on 51.3 percent shooting he averaged to that juncture.
So, KP's elbow: You're on notice.
Porzingis said perhaps the elbow will need surgery, per Marc Berman of the New York Post, but perhaps not. Head coach Jeff Hornacek said, per Newsday's Al Iannazzone, "Didn't Aaron Judge kind of just go through this? So relax, people, relax, people. He'll be all right, just like Aaron Judge." KP said he won't blame any off shooting on a little swollen elbow, however.
Meanwhile, Hardaway's foot is under surveillance. Is it plantar fasciitis? Hornacek didn't rule it out, per Iannazzone, but Hardaway said it's "just intense soreness with ligaments and stuff," according to ESPN.com's Ian Begley. Knicks fans had better hope it isn't plantar fasciitis, which was partly to blame for Lance Thomas' decline last season. It's a nagging injury and one that's difficult to play around.
Expect that these players may need a bit of rest.
Protecting the Rock
Mercifully, not every Knicks game includes a 12-turnover third quarter like the slapstick horror show seen against the Denver Nuggets on Oct. 30. However, the team does have a case of butterfingers in general. Opponents score 19.3 points per game off Knicks turnovers, making them 27th in the league.
Some of the problem is their mediocre handling of double-teams, and Porzingis attracts a lot of doubles. Despite being longer than nearly anybody on the floor, the 7'3" big man can't always get the ball safely to a teammate, and other Knicks do an insufficient job of coming to his rescue. As a result, KP has the dubious honor of leading the team with 2.5 turnovers per game. New York is 21st in the league with 16.1 turnovers per game.
Other times, good passers get too fancy: Kanter will lose his handle, O'Quinn travels, Hernangomez commits a moving screen as soon as he enters the game or Thomas forgets how wide the court is.
So be thankful for what you've enjoyed thus far, Knicks fans, but keep your fingers crossed that the team takes care of these matters soon. Otherwise, Porzingis' elbow might not hold up to a game of dueling flops with Joel Embiid on Christmas Day.