There was a feeling in the air prior to the New York Knicks’ Wednesday night clash with the Detroit Pistons. Something that hasn’t been felt since the heady early days of “Bing Bong.” Perhaps the Knicks were figuring things out. Players like Evan Fournier (out with an ankle injury), Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson, RJ Barrett, and Kemba Walker seemed to be regaining their old form. Youngsters like Obi Toppin, Immanuel Quickly, and Quentin Grimes (starting in Fournier’s place) were hit a new stride. The team had won two in a row, its first winning streak since late October. With the Detroit Pistons missing most of their players, this was fertile ground to make it three in a row.
The Knicks indeed got that win, though in a manner that elicited more questions than answers. Randle, Barrett, and the starting five (Robinson, Grimes and Walker) humiliated themselves against the Pistons skeleton crew, forcing the bench (particularly Alec Burks and Taj Gibson) to step up and save New York’s bacon.
Following the Knicks’ 94-85 win, Tom Thibodeau made some embarrassing excuses for the struggles of his starting five.
When did the bench players' plane get in? https://t.co/ib6EKeBNq2— ShwinnyPooh (@shwinnypooh) December 30, 2021
At least RJ was active early, hitting a three, lobbing to Mitch, and even getting to the line and making both free throws. But, alas, like most bright Knick moments this year, it immediately competed with a downslide. Barrett just can’t get it all together this season. The remaining Pistons, those not out due to COVID-19, made a run on a balanced attack and took a six-point lead in the first quarter.
Thibodeau came out of the timeout, called to stop the Pistons run, by benching Grimes. The rookie would log just 13 minutes in his first start. Why even start him if you’re going to yank that hard on the leash? At least we got Miles “Deuce” McBride. McBride has yet to see consistent burn, even though he fills almost every need the team has at point guard. Thibodeau prefers his aging vets. Speaking of which, Walker was an absolute bust on the second night of a back to back. With McBride and Quickly in the backcourt, Barrett tried to take on the scoring punch, penetrating for a nice, twisting lay-up. My pops texted me how he found Barrett’s game boring. Hard to argue. Barrett should be complimented for not playing outside of his abilities, but what he is good at hasn’t materialized into anything thrilling to watch.
McBride’s ability to rebound at the point allowed Immanuel Quickley and Alec Burks to leak out and spot up on the perimeter. While Kemba has been a revelation since returning from exile (tonight non-withstanding), he can’t provide that level of outlet passing and rebounding McBride and Rose can. As well, Walker cannot pick up opponents all 94 feet, the way McBride does with glee on every possession. It was refreshing.
Burks has been excellent since returning to his bench role. At the eight-minute mark of the second, he was 4-4 and hit an array of drives and three-pointers. He thrives with the second unit, providing a steady hand with the young guys. He’s athletic enough to keep up with Quickley and Toppin while giving the team off-the-dribble scoring when they need it.
Quickley might have struggled early on this season trying to transition into a facilitator, but he has grown in reading his teammate's offensive routes. He found Mitch for two lovely lobs in transition. If he can become a more significant threat as a passer, it will only open things up for him on the perimeter, with defenders on the lookout for lob threats.
The effort for the last five minutes of the second quarter was inspiring. Quickley, Walker, and Barrett were using their defensive verticality to stop Piston drives and force turnovers. The Pistons might have been thin talent-wise, but they had rabid energy, as most teams coached by Dwayne Casey do. Casey has not been blessed with a fully healthy roster since joining the Pistons in 2018, but he always has his guys fighting.
Barrett had two instances in the first half where he attacked the basket using his right hand. It would do wonders for his game if we could subvert opposing game plans by utilizing his right hand more when driving. The season will show whether this trends upward.
The Knicks held a seven-point lead heading into the third quarter, and proceeded to put on one of the most pathetic displays of basketball in franchise history. This Pistons team was terrible when fully healthy, and at this point the only regular players still on the active roster were Saddiq Bey and Hamidou Diallo. Yet the Pistons started the quarter on a 25-4 run. Thibodeau called a time-out to stop the bleeding. He returns out of the timeout with a line-up Knicks fan love: McBride, Quickly, Burks, Toppin, and Taj Gibson. The Pistons’ 14-point lead was cut to nine within a minute.
Saddiq Bey was one of the best players out of last season’s weak draft. He has been the best Pistons draft pick in recent memory. He defends at a high level and can go ballistic from three, shooting 36% in a season and a half. At the end of three quarters, he had 24 points and eight rebounds. Queens native Hamidou Diallo relishes playing the Knicks. He had 26 and 10 at the end of the third. The Knicks had only two guys they needed to worry about, and they let both guys torch them.
Like any rabid, delusional Knicks fan, I believe in good luck charms over facts and figures when it comes to this team. I swear, anytime my girlfriend walks into the room, the Knicks make a comeback. She plopped down in our living room chair and began scrolling through cat memes, and suddenly Burks hit a three. Tie ballgame. That’s my girl!
Burks deserves the game ball. He was forcing turnovers, tossing lobs, and knocking down threes. His clear path foul earned him two free throws and a Knicks possession, putting them up by four — an 18-point turnaround. Will Thibodeau go with the hot hand and keep in the kids?
At the 7:40 mark of the fourth, my dad texted me: “If Thibs puts the starters back in, I’m through with him,” Thibodeau called a timeout at 5:32. Here it is. Will Thibodeau leave this group in, even though they are tiring? Please leave them in.
Holy shit. Thibodeau stayed with the bench. Amen. As P&T’er KnicksFan84 noted, the time has come to hold the starters accountable. Maybe Thibs will do that moving forward — knowing Thibs, he probably won’t. But this fourth quarter was a start.
Taj Gibson had a huge block, his fourth, to stop a fast-break opportunity by Bey. Youngsters Toppin, Quickley and McBride, played well, but the Knicks’ defensive intensity started with old Uncle Taj.
Took me a minute to recognize it, but that thing we're seeing Taj Gibson play with is called pride— Tom Piccolo (@Tom_Piccolo) December 30, 2021
Burks came back and nailed a floater. Quickley did a great job fighting through screens to recover on defense. Credit goes to the kid for improving in that regard. Thibodeau successfully challenged a call, revealing Bey kicked his right leg off to sell it. Smart move by the coach to keep momentum in the Knicks' favor.
Why did the OKC Thunder ever let Diallo go? The kid has range, is quick-thinking, and plays above the rim. He’s part of the Pistons young core and shows flashes he has an even higher ceiling than what he’s shown thus far. Unfortunately, the Knicks got another front-row seat to his potential tonight. Or maybe it’s just what happens when a role player plays the Knicks “defense.”
Knicks were holding on to a six-point lead with three minutes left.
Burks knocked down a huge three to give the Knicks an eight-point lead. 30 for Burks. Less than a minute later, another Burks hits another three, plus the foul. Burks knocked down the free throw and expanded the lead to 12. Burks finished the night with 34 points, 19 in the fourth. Knicks made it three wins in a row. It felt good to type that. While the Knicks got the W, looming issues abound with Thibodeu’s pathetic rotations and Randle’s listless play.
After the game, pops texted me, “Game ball, Burks.” The obvious choice, but I have to go with bae.