The issue of these Knicks playing down to their competition has become such a problem Tom Thibodeau mixed up the rotation early and often in the first half. By the end of the first quarter, 10 players had already seen playing time. No matter who the other four on the floor are surrounding Obi Toppin, the Knicks just play with more energy and enthusiasm with him out there. Perhaps the other Knicks know the ball will keep moving on offense instead of stopping for Julius Randle’s isolations. This does not mean the Knicks should trade Randle this early in the season. Things can improve. We have have all of last year to look at as evidence of Randle’s potential in the regular season. But for something to evolve, particularly in the postseason, the focal point must change. That could just mean Randle slides down to being the second option.
And I say this with Randle providing 10 first-quarter points for the Knicks. But it also meant the team was down five to the Chicago Bulls. It’s odd that of all the games to become experimental with the lineup, Thibodeau chose the 11-5 Bulls to give Jericho Sims and Quinton Grimes burn in the first quarter. I know, Taj Gibson and Mitchell Robinson are out with injuries. But still, this coach is hard to figure out sometimes. And not in a sexy, mysterious way, either.
DeMar DeRozan struggled early, going 1-of-6 by the 8:00 mark in the second quarter. But the Bulls received balanced scoring from Tony Bradley, Alex Caruso, and Lonzo Ball. The Bulls are not known for their depth, but anyone is capable of getting a career game against the Knicks’ abysmal defense from the starters.
New York started things off sloppy, netting seven turnovers in the game’s first 26 minutes. The second quarter gave us lineups rarely seen this season, including Randle, Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel. I can’t recall a moment where this group played at the same time. Luckily, that squad was up against a Bulls lineup devoid of shooting, allowing the Knicks to force turnovers and rack up shot clock violations with their stifling defense, only to turn around and throw the ball away on the next possession.
Immanuel Quickley is showing more of his game this season, developing an excellent intermediate game highlighted by a turnaround jumper at the 5:00 mark of the second quarter. If the kid can scale back on how many floaters he attempts and find ways to get that shot off closer to the basket when he does, he could become a more consistent dynamo off the bench. By this time, Rose had nine points to lead the Knicks’ bench for 26 of the Knicks’ 38 points. It must be said the Knicks, to this point, had played good defense, holding the Bulls to 39% shooting, well below their season average of 46%.
RJ Barrett continued his poor play after being benched in the fourth quarter two nights ago vs. Houston. He hadn’t logged more than a minute after checking back into the game before turning the ball over, which led to a two-person fast break Lonzo Ball and Zach Lavine ending in a dunk and a timeout by Thibodeau. Randle one-upped him two possessions later when he threw the ball out of bounds to Burks as he walked to the scorer’s table to check into the game. Wow.
Mike Breen called it as he saw it when he told viewers with less than a minute left in the first half the Knicks were shooting 34% from the field but connected on 15/16 free throws. So at least all that talk by Thibodeau on preparation is showing in some capacity. The Knicks ended the half in typical 2021-2022 fashion: Randle ISO’d on the elbow, dribbling his man through a side-step before swishing a jumper which cut the Bulls’ lead to six, 45 -51. Randle finished the half 5-of-7 for 14 points. The Knicks’ bench was at 26 points, the Bulls’ bench at 11. The Knicks stayed in the game thanks to, as Breen said, the 16 made free throws.
Cool seeing house legend Armin Van Buren playing a half-time set. I wish MSG would secure talent like this for half-times at The Garden. What is Steve Stoute even doing for the Knicks? Well, it was fun until MSG cut the feed to go back to the studio to hear the insufferable Wally Szczerbiak talk about basketball.
Knicks started the second half with a Kemba Walker pull-up jumper. A predictor of good things to come? It seems Walker has heard the whispers about his disappointing play as of late. He came out firing in the third with three shot attempts, perhaps an early plea to finish the game on the floor. Barrett drived, and missed, but got fouled to cut the lead to one on a pair of free throws. He had yet to earn his first actual field goal. DeRozan’s sudden ability to hit threes augmented the game in the Bulls’ favor. The Knicks defense had one more guy they had to close out on now, making the interior all the more vulnerable.
Well, shit. The Knicks actually came out on fire in the third. Randle was in his bag, drawing contact on Ball for an and-one, hitting the free throw to give the Knicks the lead. Walker came back and drilled a three. The Knicks take the lead in the third quarter? The same time of game that has given them the most trouble this season? When was the last time we saw this? The magic continued with the defense ramping up in intensity. Case in point: at the 4:44 mark of the third, Noel fought for an offensive rebound and dished it to Barrett who hit an and-one for his first field goal.
When Noel was given his fifth foul on a phantom call late in the third, Thibodeau was forced to go with Toppin as the small-ball five. Immediately, the Knicks increase their second-chance opportunities and spacing with Obi bringing his usual high energy. Randle had 13 points at the 2:30 mark of the third and looked in sync with Walker. Good on Barrett: when his shot is off, he still goes hard on all the other aspects of the game. He had 12 rebounds in three quarters and was the only starter committed to defense.
The Knicks’ lead seemed dependent on keeping the Bulls in the half-court. Chicago is devastating in the open court. Keeping them out of their element meant minimizing turnovers and long rebounds on missed threes. The Bulls begin to capitalize on the Knicks’ miscues and ended the quarter only down by two. Not a bad look for these Knicks to give us the best third quarter in recent memory. Randle led all scorers with 27.
The Bulls opened the fourth with consecutive 3s to take a four-point lead. Who would step up? Would the Knicks have to overly depend on Rose yet again? Remember all that jazz earlier about Toppin? He was all over the boards, a Knicks weakness, leading to an and-one for Burks, the recipient of Toppin’s fight for a tip out to his teammate on the offensive boards. On the other end Obi swatted shots out of bounds. Then he drilled a three.
Toppin had 10 points and seven rebounds at the 7:00 mark. But the Knicks were down seven due to him missing defensive assignments rotating on the perimeter, something we have seen all year. Immanuel Quickly checked and immediately nailed a 3. Barrett extended his poor shooting to the line, making one of two. Burks hit a big 3 to cut Bulls’ lead to two.
Everybody was thinking the same thing: the Knicks were doing entirely too much dribbling and not enough passing. When they do make passing paramount, they end up with plays like the inbounds to Barrett that led to a completed and-one.
Randle in the clutch is hard to watch. This season it’s either a turnover or ill-advised foul. Tonight was a mixed bag. He did make up for an awful loose ball foul that gave DeRozan free throws with a powerful drive inside. Then he hit a shrewd tip in plus the foul to cut Bulls’ lead to three.
Tonight’s loss wasn’t just Randle’s fault. Many Knicks missed needed shots down the stretch. In the end, LaVine was just too much, pounding the Knicks with a barrage of 3s, drives, and free throws. The answer to who would step up for the Knicks in the fourth ended up being no one. As Major Kong said in the game thread, “Not good enough.”