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Knicks 130, Bucks 110: “Elf is no longer on the shelf”

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A most unexpected post-holiday gift

Milwaukee Bucks v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

At the end of Christmas weekend, with many people probably taking down their decorations and getting ready to move on to the new year (really, who isn’t ready to move on from 2020 at this point?), I couldn’t really find a more fitting quote than this one from knicksfan84: “Elf is no longer on the shelf.”

Yes, for the last week and change, fans have busted out that gem once again. “Put Elf on the shelf, hehe, he sucks!” While I found the pop culture reference to be kind of annoying (Elf on the Shelf is weird, I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be stared at by the dead eyes of a toy elf for a month), I agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiment — that is, until Elfrid Payton exploded against the Milwaukee Bucks last night.

Yes, Elfrid Payton was your star of the night, in a night that was ultimately chock full of them for the Knicks. Despite scoring 130 points on the mighty (“mighty”?) Bucks, the Knicks didn’t have a single scorer eclipse 30 points, and only had two score over 20. It was a well-rounded effort if there ever was one, and Payton played a huge part in it, racking up 27 points on 12-16 shooting (3-3 from three!) and seven assists.

The Knicks came out of the gate running behind Payton and Julius Randle’s strong play, and, for once, never looked back en route to a 130-110 victory. They finished the first quarter up 30-27... “OK, but the Bucks still looked pretty good, and the Knicks always fall off after a hot start, the other shoe is gonna drop any minute.”

Bench Scorer Extraordinaire Alec Burks checked in late in the first and kept the magic going throughout the second quarter, and the Knicks went into half up 61-45... “Yeah alright, but I’ve seen the Knicks blow bigger leads than this, and third quarters are always the worst. Watch them only be up by five heading into the fourth and blow it.”

But then the third quarter came and went, and the Knicks didn’t give up any ground — in fact, they won the quarter by five points, stretching their lead to 96-75 heading to the final frame. Julius Randle scored 12 of his 27 points on 5-6 shooting in the third, and looked absolutely unstoppable... “Wow, they’re actually gonna pull this off?”

And then finally, they ceded one whole point off their lead to the Bucks in the fourth, and won by 20 in a game that felt like it should’ve been presented in black and white with a chilling intro and outro from Rod Serling. If you don’t think this was a Twilight Zone episode of a game, then how do you explain career 31.6% 3-point shooter Frank Ntilikina going 4-4 from deep in the same game that career 29.3% 3-point shooter Elfrid Payton went 3-3??

The Bucks’ last performance was hanging 138 on the Warriors in a 39-point Christmas day blowout, while completely bottling up Steph Curry (19 points, 6-17 shooting). Two days later, Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle combined to hang 56 points on them on 60.6% shooting. Either the Bucks aren’t as good as we thought they were, or the Knicks are getting better. I’d prefer to think it’s the latter.

Notes

— I don’t want to be a party pooper, but Elfrid really needs to show that he can make these threes on a consistent basis before having him out there is going to “solve” the Knicks’ spacing issues. Take, for example, his third make of the night from deep:

The NBA is all about spacing and “gravity,” i.e. how much a player can pull the defense out of its preferred spots in the paint to cover the perimeter. Payton received the ball in the corner, checked his feet to make sure he was behind the 3-point line, had a cup of coffee, checked his stock portfolio, called his broker to ask why Q4 didn’t perform as expected, and then finally took his 3-pointer once Brook Lopez decided to stick his hand up out of courtesy. That’s not gravity.

Career 31.6% 3-point shooter Rajon Rondo once made 5-7 3-pointers in a early-January game for the Dallas Mavericks against the Boston Celtics, who had just traded him to the Mavs less than a month prior. Everybody lost their minds. Rondo has gone on to be a below-average 3-point shooter for the rest of his career, though that half-season with Dallas did at least set him on that path to “below-average” rather than “completely horrendous” (he had shot .252 from three prior to that year, and has shot .349 since!), so maybe there’s something here! Just don’t expect a sudden Steph Curry career turn from Payton, and don’t expect defenses to start respecting him and solve the Knicks’ spacing issues unless he can string together a few more games like this (at minimum).

— Again, really not trying to be a party pooper, but just realistic — Julius Randle played great in this game, and has played great overall to start the season. That’s the good part. The bad part is that, to get to his overall great performances (he’s averaging 23.7 points, 10 rebounds, and 6.3 assists on .553/.556/.820 splits in the young season), he’s been taking some really high degree of difficulty shots.

As the old basketball adage goes, “There are no bad shots if you make them.” There are plenty of guys in the NBA that make a living off of taking and making the type of “bad” shots that Randle has been taking and making through the first three games of the year. The potential problem is: when he cools off and those shots stop falling, will he keep taking them? Or will Thibs have the gravitas to reel Randle in? Because if last year told us anything, it’s that Randle is a mercurial scorer, and at some point he’s going to cool off. I guess we’ll see how it goes. For now, I’ll just enjoy the show.

(And literally as I’m writing this I’m talking to Shwinnypooh about Randle, and coming to the conclusion that if the passing stays as good as it has been and Randle’s numbers at the rim get about to his career average, then he’ll probably be OK. Or maybe even better than OK — good? Great? Again, I think it’s probably just a matter of “Can he be coached/punished out of taking bad shots if/when he’s cold?”)

— With Immanuel Quickley still out and the evil temptation of Dennis Smith Jr. removed due to injury, Thibs finally gave Frank Ntilikina his first significant run of the 2020-21 season. Frank rewarded Thibs with 12 points on 4-4 shooting from three in about 19 minutes. I was talking to some people at The Strickland prior to the game and said the extremely fuego take that Frank had been OK thus far in the season, but hadn’t really made any “wow” plays in his first handful of minutes in the first couple games to me. In this game, he made the “wow” plays, which in this case was making shots at an increasingly difficult rate (that last pull-up heat check from the right wing in the video above was a thing of beauty).

Much like Elfrid, Frank needs to show some consistency if this magical blip on the radar is going to turn into anything consistent. But if he can find some consistency, it’s going to make things really interesting in a crowded field of guards: DSJ probably figures to be out of the rotation now, but once Quickley and Austin Rivers come back, who gets minutes out of Elfrid, Quick, Rivers, Bullock, Burks, and Frank? You figure at least one of those guys will end up the odd man out (if not two), considering RJ and Knox have been soaking up most of the minutes at the 3. Just something to keep an eye on.

— Speaking of Knox, he had yet another good game, despite a so-so shooting performance — seven points (3-8 shooting), four rebounds, two assists, one steal, one block, and a +17 plus/minus, good for third on the team. I still think his best position will end up being a stretch 4 long-term, but he’s been busting his ass on both ends at the 3 spot, and he’s reached a point where even if his shot isn’t falling, he’s a positive player out there. The magic of Kenny Payne, I guess. I don’t know for sure how we’ll look back at the Knox/Mikal Bridges/Mile Bridges comparison 10 years from now, but the gap does appear to be narrowing by the day.

— I haven’t even talked about RJ yet, which I guess just proves how deep the Knicks’ successes went in this game. Victory solves everything! RJ was great too, if not quite as loudly as Elfrid and Randle. 17 points on 7-17 shooting (0-4 from three — bad!; 3-4 from the free throw line — pretty good!), eight rebounds, four assists, a steal, and just two turnovers from RJ, a night after he put up one of the worst games of his career against Philly while getting clamped by Ben Simmons.

If you’re sensing a theme in this recap, it’s consistency. RJ needs to show a more consistent ability to hit the three just like most of the other guys mentioned here do as well — he went 3-3 to open the season and has gone 0-10 since. But the fact that he can go 0-4 from three in 38 minutes and come out a team-high +21 while still putting up a decent stat line shows that he has lots of value even when the three isn’t dropping.

— Alec Burks is really good. That’s it, that’s the bullet point. He scored 18 in this game on 5-7 shooting, just narrowly missing becoming the first Knick since Melo to drop 20 in their first three games as a Knick, and he’s currently averaging 20.7 points/3.7 rebounds/3.7 assists on a ridiculous .531/.667/.900 slash line to start the year. He’s almost certainly worth at least double the $6 million he’s making from the Knicks this year. As much as I’d enjoy him being a Knick for years to come, here’s hoping he’s worth at least double the two second round picks he fetched at the trade deadline last year, too.

— 1700 words in and I haven’t even talked about MITCH yet! The stat line won’t blow you away — nine points, six rebounds, two steals, and a block — but only two fouls in 35 minutes against a team featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo should definitely blow you away. Just like RJ, Knox, and some of the other young guys on this team, Mitch is proving that he can positively impact games without getting a lot of counting stats — namely chasing blocks, in his case. This one possession guarding Giannis was an absolute masterpiece of “in-control” Mitch:

Learning that defensive greatness isn’t measured in stocks (steals plus blocks) is going to be one of the swing factors in Mitch’s development. Games like tonight paint a positive picture in that regard.

And, at risk of rambling any further, that’s all I got for this game. Hopefully the Knicks come out tomorrow night against the red-hot Cavs (???) and can keep the magic going.