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The Knicks’ defensive shortcomings are proving costly

Stretches of poor defensive effort have recently sunk the Knicks into holes they haven’t been able to get out of

New York Knicks v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Knicks hung their hat on defense last season—as most Tom Thibodeau-led teams do. They were a swarming unit, one that violated the personal space of their opponents while communicating well enough to cover for each other at a moment’s notice.

With a bottom-10 offensive output, stopping folks was the tree that bore nearly all of the fruits of last season. Namely, 41 wins and the No. 4 seed when the playoffs previously seemed out of the realm of possibility.

This setup is not to insinuate that the Knicks have completely fallen off a cliff at that end in the early stages of this season. Sure, they’re 25th in defensive rating, but their figure (109.7) would’ve ranked sixth last year. So, save your overarching conclusions for another day.

However, there have been recent stretches of defensive effort that hardly live up to the standard the Knicks have set for themselves, and it’s cost them a better shot at a victory in each of the last two games.

Toronto was putting up a valiant fight against New York on Monday, but the home team appeared to be keeping their opponent at bay, at least through the first half. But then the Raptors hit 7 triples en route to a 38-point third quarter, building a lead they’d have little trouble holding onto for the remainder of the game.

How did the Knicks respond to a loss they could’ve easily won? By surrendering 36 points to a middling Pacers offense in the opening quarter of their Wednesday night matchup. They continued to fight throughout the night, cutting the lead down to as low as four in the fourth quarter. But when you find yourself down 14 after one quarter, mounting a comeback requires a level of perfection that is hardly a guarantee.

“We just can’t do that if we want to win games,” Julius Randle said of the defense after losing to the Pacers.

It’d be great if the Knicks could hit 3s like it’s 2013 and have their offense carry them regardless of their productivity at the other end. A possibility? Yes, but far from a nightly lock.

Immanuel Quickley was 1-of-6 on threes against Toronto. Evan Fournier has made just three of his last 12 attempts from beyond the arc. The team as a whole has shot just below 34 percent in their last two games. Off nights and cold streaks happen to the best of them.

Their keys to victory must be rooted in something they can more easily control. That was the case last year when their effort was never in question no matter the circumstance. Now? Apparently jumping out to contest a first-quarter 3-pointer with the shock clock expiring is too much to ask.

Sometimes an OG Anunoby will have the game of his life or Myles Turner will discover the 3-point stroke everyone’s been craving from him. But letting Svi Mykhailiuk cut through the lane for a dunk off an out-of-bounds play is inexcusable.

New York’s posted a defensive rating of 114.9 in these past two games, which speaks to issues that extend far beyond just two quarters of play. Opponents have been more efficient from three. They’ve grabbed more offensive rebounds. And they’re scoring nearly eight more points per game compared to last season’s league-leading mark.

The Knicks aren’t playing to the strengths of what earned them such an unexpectedly successful previous season. That’s hardly an effective strategy in its own right. Even more when paired with an offense that’s still figuring out how all the pieces fit together.

Should it continue, the path to victories will only grow more difficult with so much required to overcome the circumstances that will almost always be the Knicks' own doing.

“An important part of winning is play with an edge,” Thibs said after the Indiana game. “...We gotta pick ourselves up and have a determination about it. I always say, you have to be mentally tough when you’re facing adversity, and that’s what we are right now.”