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Clippers 129, Knicks 115: If RJ and IQ can do this against the Clippers, what can’t they do?

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The Knicks Big 3 were exquisite, but not enough to beat a stacked Clippers squad.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Knicks win their second straight game...they just happened to score 14 fewer points than the other team.

At least it felt that way.

If you were told before the game that Immanuel would have 25 points on 9-16 shooting, RJ would have 23 on 9-14, Julius had 27-12-5, and Reggie Bullock made 2 of 3 threes, you would probably assumed they won. Considering it was against the 15-5 Clippers with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George back in the lineup, it might as well have been one considering this is still a developmental season.

It was a bit reminiscent of the famous Frank/Dotson/Hardaway/Vonleh/Robinson lineup that went toe-to-toe with the Warriors until Kevin Durant decided enough was enough and went off in the third quarter. This afternoon, it was Kawhi Leonard playing that role.

As Steve Jones put it, the “let’s go home” plays.

At halftime, Kawhi had just 12 points on a paltry 3-9 shooting. In the second half, he was about as flawless as a basketball player could be. He had 16 points on 5-6 shooting and was a +20, while clamping about anyone in front of him.

But unless you’re the Lakers or maybe the Nets, that’s not really a problem. The fact a young Knicks team was able to contain an elite Clippers team for the entirety of the first half and keep it competitive for much of the fourth is impressive any way you slice it. The Clippers themselves bathed the Young Knicks in praise as if they were writers for a Knicks fanblog.

Paul George channeled about every Knicks fan’s thought on Immanuel Quickley, simply stating:

Kawhi Leonard seemed to be similarly impressed that RJ nearly single-handedly held him to just 3-9 in the first half while bursting with precision and confidence.

Barrett’s 14 points on 6-7 shooting in the first half along with a rebound, assist, and steal, aren’t some world-beating numbers, but it was strangely some of the best basketball I’ve seen him play. He came out the gates assertive. Scoring 4 of the Knicks’ first 6 points, then assisting Mitchell Robinson on a dunk for the 9th and 10th.

His next scores demonstrated how much he’s seemingly developed over the last several games.

He truly looked like Kawhi Leonard, poking the ball loose for a steal, then beat Kennard to the ball for a slam.

Then we saw him exploit a mismatch with Ivica Zubac after demanding a clear-out for an iso for a floater.

To close out the half, he drove for a righty layup, which he made sure to let everyone know.

I don’t think you’d see many of these plays last season. Or at least not frequently. I don’t think RJ ever demanded isolations last season, and “RJ getting to his spot with ease” is a phrase that was never really uttered considering he didn’t really seem to have any spots to begin with. In these plays, you can see a lot of his pre-draft criticism begin to be answered—his defense, left-hand dominance (which I feel is always questioned more for lefties than for righties), finishing, and quickness were all questioned. Even last year as a forward chasing around guards, he looked pretty competent despite the results being there. Now matched up against fellas his own size, he’s holding his own for long stretches against the likes of Kawhi Leonard and it’s starting to seem like a joke it was suggested that he’d be a defensive liability.

He’s seemingly taken a page out of Quickley’s book with a floater he’s been taking and making a great deal over his hot stretch. Though with each good game it becomes harder to call it just hot shooting. He’s averaging 20 points, 5 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.7 steals, and just 2 turnovers over his last 10 games on a .514/.419/.833 slash line. More impressive than his shooting from three has been his efficient shooting at the rim, which had me concerned just a few weeks ago, but it’s starting to seem like it’s more his decision-making and pace has improved more than it is him simply getting lucky rolls.

But that was just the first half. Though Quickley did have 10 points on 3-5 shooting in just 11 first-half minutes, his more exciting play came in the second half. In what seems to be a somewhat frustrating yet exhilarating routine, after the Elf Payton lineup allowed the Clippers lead to expand, it was Quickley’s turn to save the day. In what probably gave Clippers fans flashbacks to Chris Paul, he swiftly made a pair of floaters and dimed up Randle for three to close out the third quarter.

Things picked up from there. Down 10 to start off the fourth quarter, Quickley nearly-single handedly cut the lead down to just two with 7:44 left in the period, assisting on the first score of the quarter, then scoring the next 10 himself. He did so in a host of ways, a patented floater, a three, a patented floater off a rebound of his own missed three, and then a pullup three.

He wouldn’t score again until on a technical free throw with a minute left and the game out of reach, but it’s becoming hard to remain rational about him.

Julius Randle was supremely impressive yet again, looking like the best player on the floor at times despite sharing it with two all-NBA players.

Against any other team this is probably a win. With any other player starting for Elfrid Payton, who is seemingly regressing by the game, this is probably a win. If RJ Barrett comes back in before the 5:45 mark in the fourth, it’s probably a win. While it’s fun to see Taj Gibson back for Thibs, if he plays less than 18 minutes (a team-worst -11 in them), it’s also probably a win. And when those are the main culprits, it’s hard to be too upset.

The most important thing this season is player development. Perhaps for the first time, Quickley, Barrett, and Randle all played excellently in the same game, and against one of the best teams in the league at that. Quickley and Barrett seem to be figuring out new ways to exploit defenses with each game, and the concept of 20 and 21 year-olds outsmarting seasoned vets is pretty mind-blowing. If Quickley is already having this much success with word of his floater getting out there, it’s exciting to think about how he will continue to adapt and improve.

Quickley also had a very cute moment with Lou Williams, who he looked up to as a player, and I’m not sure there’s any other player in the NBA with the self-awareness and intelligence to mold themselves after players like him and CJ McCollum rather than the typical go-to of Kobe. While wins are fun, I would rather complain about RJ, Randle, and Quickley not playing enough and want more, than have the usual Thibs concern of overexertion. If the Knicks are serious about making the playoffs, they have more important and winnable games against the comparably-seeded Chicago Bulls Monday and Wednesday, and having the team be spry against them.

Things to watch:

-With Reggie Bullock, Alec Burks, and Austin Rivers all healthy, Kevin Knox received his first Did Not Play-Coach’s Decision. While disappointing, it’s not too surprising as his play and minutes has dwindled over the last 8 games, averaging just 2.3 points on 23% shooting in 12.5 minutes per game. It’s an eerily similar start to last season, in which his scoring immediately went downhill after averaging a promising 10 points on 45% from three over his first 12 games. Knox averaged 8 points on 42% from three over his first 12 games this season. While the Knicks are playing so competitively, it is difficult to justify giving him minutes at the moment, but the season is young. Injuries will likely give him a shot again, and if the wheels fall off the competitive train, he should be thrown right back into the action.

-Ditto Frank Ntilikina. In his fourth game since being cleared, he received his fourth straight DNP-CD, as Reggie Bullock took the starting spot in his first game back. While it does make sense to be a bit more cautious with Frank, who’s sporting a knee brace, he deserves to play off merit when healthy unlike Knox. We saw him deliver as a competent backup point guard last season, and in his limited time this year, his shot seems improved across mechanically, which is backed up by his miniscule sample size of 5-9 shooting on threes. There’s not really much to lose by playing him instead of Payton, who’s been dreadful on each ends despite his defensive reputation. Outside of Rivers’ and Bullocks’ erratic hot stretches, Frank likely brings more impact as a defender than them as well. While he should likely get a crack at a spot soon, him not appearing like a priority at a moment doesn’t bode well for his future with the team.

-Three-point variance. A lot of talk has been made about the Knicks’ three point shooting luck with opponents missing. It was not entirely unjustified, as the Knicks’ opponent three point percentage was the lowest since the Pistons in 2004 after their win over the Warriors. The Knicks saw what happens when the luck goes against them as the Clippers nailed 17 of their 38 three point attempts, a 45% clip, as the Knicks let up an uncharacteristic 129 points. But it is also worth noting the Clippers are the best shooting team in the league by percentage with a 42% clip while making the 5th-most in the league. So it’s not like that’s how teams should shoot against them every night, but they could still afford to limit team’s open attempts despite their defensive success so far.

-Obi Toppin. This is more directed at the Knicks players themselves, who quite literally should look out for Obi more as he bursts towards the rim.

After stringing together a few improved games, finally successfully completing some drives, he was held without a field goal against the Clippers. While he’s not blameless, the Knicks could probably look to get him a bit more involved. He had a nice pass to Taj at one point, and while he’s not looking as offensively polished as made out, the fact he’s been able to stay on the court, despite that part of his game not being there is a bit reassuring with how bad his defense was made out to be.

-Rotations. They were a bit questionable in the same way as they’ve been a bit over the past few games—namely too many Elfrid minutes (though maybe any with the starters is too many at this point) digging the Knicks a hole, and then keeping RJ on the bench because the Quickley unit is helping resolve it. While many coaches leave in a hot bench unit, you can probably afford to pull Taj Gibson and Austin Rivers for RJ and Mitch earlier when it’s mostly Quickley that’s carrying the unit. Not the end of the world, but probably should be corrected if the goal is to win games.

-RJ and Quickley again. I know I just wrote about them a whole bunch but sheesh. Might be riding the high a bit too much right now but when you have 2 young talented dudes who are so smart and driven, it’s hard to not go crazy thinking about how good they can be off sheer force of will and smarts.