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Magic 131, Knicks 117: 'No defenseball?'

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A night where the Knicks unsurprisingly continued to hemmorhage points

NBA: New York Knicks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Playing defense in the NBA is harder than it’s ever been. Contact is, for all intents and purposes, forbidden, refs turn a blind eye to moving screens, you have to crash down into the paint on drives and be able to recover out to shooters beyond the arc, etc. The current rules and points of emphasis the league has put in place this year are really designed to help the offense and it’s worked.

That doesn’t mean playing bad defense like the Knicks currently are is okay. And right now the Knicks are playing a special kind of bad defense. This isn’t all that surprising given the recent changes to the starting lineup. Taking out Frank Ntilikina, Damyean Dotson — the Knicks’ 2 best perimeter defenders — and Noah Vonleh, and replacing them with Emmanuel Mudiay, 22 year-old rookie Allonzo Trier and 19 year-old rookie Kevin Knox is going to be detrimental to your defensive efficiency. 20 year-old rookie Mitchell Robinson has the tools to be a special defensive player, but asking him to cover for the other four starters is a recipe for disaster.

The Magic took advantage of the starters’ defensive fragility by forcing Robinson outside of the paint on that end to start the game. Orlando had Nikola Vucevic, a viable perimeter threat, initiate much of the offense from the top of the key forcing Mitch to cover him outside, far away from the rim where he’s most impactful. Aaron Gordon was the primary beneficiary, scoring on post-ups, back cuts, running off screens for jumpers and even banking in ugly, bricky triples.

With the Knicks’ porous defense giving up enough threes and shots at the rim to get Daryl Morey hot and bothered, Orlando quickly raced out to a big lead en route to a 44 point first quarter. The Knicks, to their credit, didn’t hang their heads, but kept chipping away at the Magic’s 18 point lead. Offensively they were buoyed by the scoring exploits of Tim Hardaway Jr., Trey Burke and Enes Kanter, while the introduction of Ntilikina and Dotson late in the first quarter slowed down Orlando’s offensive onslaught.

On several occasions thoughout the game the Knicks closed the gap, even cutting the lead to one at halftime, but every time they closed the gap Orlando was able to go on a run. In kparticular, Orlando punished the Knicks’ perimeter defenders for playing up on their man by back cutting them time and again. With Robinson dealing with foul trouble the Knicks were forced to lean heavily on Kanter and the Magic took full advantage all night as they racked up 131 points.

Notes:

  • I know Fizdale is experimenting right now. I’m fine with that, even if I’d personally have left the previous starting lineup untouched. The thing with experiments is they don’t always work out and while I do think Emmanuel Mudiay has shown some promising signs, this starting group is too porous defensively to ever be the answer for the Knicks.
  • Speaking of Mudiay, it’s been really nice to see him string together efficient scoring outings. He isn’t collapsing into a heap on every drives and has been using his size to get to the rim against smaller guards well. He’s been raising up confidently on mid-range jumpers, although the pull-up three, or threes in general, haven’t been much of a feature of his arsenal yet. In combination with an improved defensive effort, Mudiay is taking advantage of his chance and earning himself a spot in the league next year, whether it be in New York or elsewhere.
  • Hardaway’s career year, as a scorer anyways, continues. 32 points on 20 shots to go along with 10 trips to the free throw line is a good look. When Tim stays aggressive driving to the rim and doesn’t just settle for wild jump shots, good things happen. I’m excited to see if his efficiency climbs higher when he dials down his usage after Kristaps Porzingis returns and he can take advantage of the defensive focus the Latvian commands.
  • Single game plus/minus is really noisy and very often not an accurate representation of a player’s impact on the game. Frank being a +10 in his 22 minutes tonight though isn’t one of those cases. The Knicks hemmorhaged buckets all over the court when he was off the floor. When he was on the floor Orlando was much less successful in executing offensively which allowed the Knicks to get back into the game.
  • Frank needs to start having more of a consistent impact on the offensive side of the ball, though. One shot in 22 minutes isn’t enough. He’s young and still has plenty of time, but he really does need to create more often with the ball in his hands. If he can do so, he’s going to be an extremely valuable player, but he needs to start showing out more often on that side of the ball.
  • In that vein it would be nice to see Fizdale run more set pick-and-rolls for him, especially early in games, to help build up his confidence. He ran two today. On one he created an easy shot deep in the paint for Kanter. On the other he again dished to Kanter deep in the paint which earned him a trip to the free throw line.
  • To my eye it certainly seems that the Knicks have been ran less of the telegraphed DHO actions and more pick-and-roll the last couple of game. It’s no coincidence that Burke has busted out of his slump in these games.
  • I’ve given Fizdale alot of grief for unimaginative offensive sets after timeouts, but he drew up a beautiful Spain PnR in the 3rd that led to an uncontested Hardaway dunk.

Kanter helps create space for Hardaway with a solid screen at the top of the key on Evan Fournier and Mudiay’s screen on Vucevic as he backpedals is the icing on top. They ran this exact set later in the game for Burke unsuccessfully, but more of this please.

  • 12 assists tonight. Sure, they scored 117 points, so the offense produced enough to win, but the lack of ball and player movement is tough to stomach, especially on a night when your opponent racks up 35 assists. This team isn’t blessed with alot of great passers, but it certainly seems like Fizdale’s too encouraging of the isolation scoring ability of players like Burke, Trier and Kanter. A little more cohesive offensive structure and less individualistic shot creation would be a welcome development over the course of the season.
  • Knox had a rough night. The jumper wasn’t there, he didn’t get much of anything going when he drove and Orlando picked on him a ton defensively. Growing pains.
  • Mitch got worked by Vucevic. He picked up 5 fouls in just 9 minutes. Also growing pains.
  • Vucevic is really fucking good. I’ve long been an admirer of his game. With the three ball he’s added to his repertoire along with gradual defensive improvements, he’s become one of the most complete big men in the league.

The Knicks battled tonight after getting punched in the mouth right in the beginning. They’ve shown heart in their last few outings following a pair of listless losses to the Magic and Thunder, but until that effort produces improved defensive results the losses will keep mounting. Quoth nykfanwarsaw, “no defenseball?” No sir. No defenseball tonight.