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Raptors 92, Knicks 91: ‘Happy for the tank, sad for the players’

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The Knicks defended well, and still lost. That’s rough.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at New York Knicks Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek drew guffaws from the whole hep basketball world last week when he announced that the Knicks would be reverting back to the much-derided Triangle offense. His explanation: They need the Triangle (coached by Kurt Rambis) to improve their defense (also coached by Kurt Rambis).

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that this all makes sense — that the Knicks need to run the Triangle to get back on defense. Perhaps we saw the result on Monday night — a 92-91 loss to the Toronto Raptors, in which one of the best defensive performances of the season was offset by the kind of crappy second-half offense we came to expect from last season’s Triangle-happy squad. What if we’ve traded a nonstop parade of 112-111 losses for a nonstop parade of 92-91 losses? Would that be better, or worse?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We can at least point to this game as an example of what the Knicks are capable of on defense. The return of a finally-healthy Lance Thomas alongside a re-energized Courtney Lee shut down Toronto’s driving lanes, switched effectively, and made life tough on the Kyle Lowry-less Raptors. Sure, they eventually fell victim to late-game DeMar DeRozan hero-ball — not much you can do about that — but it took an extraordinary effort from an All-Star, plus a very un-DeRozan-like 30-foot three and a moving screen as flagrant as anything since Kevin Garnett’s prime to get his buckets. As P&T’er SellingLikeHotTakes noted, it was pretty easy to feel bad for the Knicks players on this night, as they played their hearts out.

On the other end, we saw a lot of last season’s offense — effective early, useless once the opponent made adjustments. The Raptors came out of halftime ready to pressure the ball and take away the Knicks’ primary passing options. And that was pretty much all she wrote — the Knicks were easily muscled off their spots, and could not work in any counters. Those counters supposedly come with a great deal of practice, so of course the players are trying all this stuff in the middle of the freakin’ season. We also witnessed another unwelcome habit from season’s past: the offense consistently setting up with 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock. That didn’t work out either.

Welcome back, Triangle. I didn’t miss you.

Notes:

— Courtney Lee was incredible in this game, filling up the stat sheet in every possible manner: 16 points on 6-10 shooting, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 5 steals (!!!) and 2 blocks. The steals and blocks tell the story — dude was all over the court on defense. He bit on a DeRozan pump-fake late in the contest, resulting in three free throws, but made up for it soon after with a clutch-ass three in the final minute, putting the Knicks up by 1. It might have made the difference. It didn’t, of course. But it might have.

— Did Derrick Rose know the Knicks had a foul to give on DeRozan’s game-winning jumper?

Look, Rose checked DeRozan well. He was also mismatched and would have been better off fouling. We’ve all seen enough of Rose to know there was no way he was going to intentionally foul in that situation. He wanted that matchup. Unfortunately, so did DeRozan, who is a much better player.

— P.J. Tucker will be a free agent after this season. If he re-signs in Toronto, might that be enough to convince Carmelo Anthony to seek a trade out of the division?

— We saw a sterling example of last season Lance Thomas, complete with surprising scoring efficiency (12 points on four shots!!!) and the requisite hustle plays. Lance got to the free-throw line 6 times on janky-ass drives to the basket, a specialty of his. I’m very happy to see this version of Lance once again.

— Oh, you thought Willy Hernangomez might get more shots as a starter, particularly with Kristaps Porzingis out? You sweet, dumb bastard. Willy put up 8 points on 6 shots, two of which came on offensive rebound tip-ins. The Knicks may be running their offense through the post a great deal more often these days, but somehow that doesn’t include gett Willy the ball on the low block.

That isn’t to say Willy was useless. Far from it. His 9 rebounds matched the combined output of Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka, and he played a significant role in getting both players in foul trouble. He’s also developing some nice chemistry with Carmelo Anthony.

Yes, Melo missed the layup on the second one, but it was still a dynamite pass. Willy good.

— Ron Baker played well in the first half, but was no match for Toronto’s increased ball pressure in the second. You might think that would have been a good time to bring in Chasson Randle...

— SIKE! Instead, Hornacek went with Sasha Vujacic, who was a mind-boggling -10 in three minutes of playing time while blowing two wide-open looks from three. Strong tankage.

Charley Rosen, on Vujacic:

Vujacic is mostly incapable of creating his own shots, but would be a key weapon if the Knicks would ever learn how the run the triangle—which is something that Vujacic has already mastered.

It says here that Vujacic should be in the rotation and play more—at least fifteen minutes per game.

Charley Rosen is the real hero of the tank.

Knicks play next in Orlando, which should be a tough game to lose. I believe in them, though.