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Another Fizdale oddity: The lack of Taj Gibson in the fourth quarter rotation

Taj has been trusted to start, but not to finish

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The Knicks followed up Sunday afternoon’s fourth quarter collapse with a Monday night first quarter capitulation. An evergreen sentence, in an evergreen season.

Losing by 44 is never a great look. But, to be fair, Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t human. He’s a Grecian Demigod. The burden of proof is on the entity doing inconceivable basketball things, and Giannis is the best player on the best team on course for one of the best individual seasons in NBA history.

My bar for the Knicks is not that high, and the parameters of my mind not broad enough to dissect the nuts and bolts of exactly how Giannis — and a team enviably coached and painstakingly created in his impossible image — solved the Julius Randle-led Knicks.

So my focus will be pre-Milwaukee drubbing (and all stats are from before that game as well).

Sunday’s heartbreaker was at the hands of the Boston Celtics, the latest in a lengthening line of opponents to outlast the young Knicks through 21 games. Now 4-17 on the season, the Boston game was the ninth single-digit loss of the year for David Fizdale’s men, and Fiz finds himself palpably close to being the subject of a festive Woj bomb.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise; the Knicks are very young, with a mish-mash roster, incorporating a bunch of new pieces in new roles. There are mitigating factors, sure, but there are equally visible - and fixable - factors in these fourth quarter collapses.

Here’s what Taj Gibson had to say in the wake of Sunday night’s shambolic crunch-time turnover-fest: “Stay solid, don’t listen to the outside noise... We just have to be a little bit more aware, be a little bit more physical... it’s the tipping point when the game gets more serious. We have to learn to execute.”

Gibson — with 822 NBA games under his belt — knows what’s necessary in the guts of a tight game. Tick them off the list: solidity, awareness, physicality, execution. Fizdale and the Knicks have been in need of those traits through 21 lackluster games; it’s why Gibson was inserted into the starting lineup early in November, after being out of the rotation and logging DNPs to start the year.

By some wild coincidence, Gibson’s first game as a starter was the first fabled victory over the Dallas Mavericks back on Nov. 8. This win against the Mavs, and an improbable second one six days later, are probably why Fizdale still has a job, even if that last drop of equity is losing its sheen.

Outside of the heady heights of those Mavs wins, though, inserting Taj into the starting group has been a positive move. He steadies and balances the team, especially when paired with Julius Randle in the frontcourt. In 211 minutes together this season, the pair has a plus-1.9 net rating, compared to Randle and Mitchell Robinson’s minus-16.3 in 176 minutes, and Randle and Bobby Portis’ minus-11.3 in 201 minutes.

Whatever Fizdale’s primary rationale — defense, screening, experience, general competence — it should apply at least as equally as much to fourth quarters as it does to first quarters.

Gibson has been notable by his absence in these close games, despite being the most qualified player on the roster to wrestle a tight game into the win column.

Since being inserted into the starting lineup ahead of Portis (presumably for reasons related to winning basketball games) Taj has logged 36 fourth quarter minutes to Portis’ 62. In these minutes, Taj has a +/- of minus-19, compared to Portis’ team worst minus-51. Maybe the most jarring stat, though, is that Gibson has outscored Portis by eight points to six in almost half the minutes played, when the primary — really, solitary — argument for Bobby playing ahead of Taj is his supposed superior ability to put points on the board.

Allonzo Trier, a player now permanently residing in one of Fizdale’s many pockets of tough love, has played more fourth quarter minutes (53) than Taj Gibson (49) this season.

This seems a little odd, doesn’t it? Portis is a useful part-time floor spacer, but he is not one of the Knicks’ handful of developmental projects. If Fizdale has concluded that Gibson is a better fit in the Knick starting lineup, what reason — other than the occasional Bobby Portis revenge game — could he have to discard this rationale in fourth quarters?

Admittedly, the hapless morass that is the 2019-20 New York Knicks have much larger, more systemic, and deeply-entrenched issues than the relative playing time of Portis and Gibson, two guys who most likely will be somewhere else next season. Still, what this niche little rotational oddity does shine a light on is Fizdale’s increasingly enigmatic coaching philosophy.

You know, the whole playing shooting guards at point guard when other point guards are available thing (twice!). Or playing small forwards at shooting guard when other shooting guards are available thing. Or how about playing at a sloth-slow speed — 27th in the NBA — whilst consistently preaching pace.

It’s all just confusing, really. I’m sure Taj was a little confused as he stoically gave his analysis of another fourth quarter collapse he watched from the bench, listing intangible virtues the team lacks as if reading them off his own personal resume.

I’m not sure that the difference between Gibson and Portis is the difference between winning and losing these torture sessions we call basketball games, but I’d like to find out. Taj has been a breath of fresh air this season, a no-nonsense veteran just going about his business amidst the interminable noise that seems to cling to this franchise. He also happens to be one of our best all-around basketball players.

Maybe we should play him in the minutes that matter most?