Allowing that one’s feelings about NBA coaches are akin to one’s taste in lovers — deeply personal, liable to change over time and different strokes for different folks — I’m comfortable sharing that Tom Thibodeau is the first Knicks coach I’ve trusted in 10 years. When you go that long without knowing the touch of a skilled paramour and then meet someone new, at first it’s all fireworks and cresting and crashing waves of pleasure. Inevitably, at some point, you have a day or a night where the magic doesn’t happen. Then what? When I started dating my fiancee, she’d frequently ask “How could any of your ex’s have let you go?” After a while I realized she no longer asked me that. I had to step up my game. Change or die. Such is life.
The 2021 Knicks have changed a lot from the dreck of recent years, and for that Thibodeau deserves much credit. Last night they lost their third game in a row, 99-86 to the Dallas Mavericks, and there was plenty of blame to go around. Julius Randle played his worst game all season. He, RJ Barrett and Derrick Rose combined to shoot 22% from the field, and they only shot that high thanks to a late hot spurt. The starters scored 45 points on 51 shots. 86 points was the fewest they’ve scored at home in over two years. But Thibs, through action and inaction, also earned a failing grade. That’s not enough to make me long for David Fizdale channeling Chauncey Gardiner, Jeff Hornacek’s innocent-man-on-death-row aura, Derek Fisher’s “This game isn’t even my whole night” vibe or Mike Woodson’s avuncular charm. But it sucked to sit through.
Barrett, Rose and Reggie Bullock had all been listed as questionable, but all three played, for whatever that was worth. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle (OAKAAKUYOAK) was out after testing positive for Covid; his absence was no more meaningful than Rose, Reggie and RJ’s presence. In the battle between Knick power forwards of the past and present, both Kristaps Porziņģis and Randle shot poorly enough to suggest the correct answer to “Who would you rather have?” was “None of the above.”
The Mavs were missing all kinds of shots in all kinds of weird ways.
Not a KP miss, but I'm eating up any and all Mavericks fails tonight pic.twitter.com/P7u9ngk3mA— The Strickland (@TheStrickland) April 3, 2021
Even Luka Dončić was laughing after this one.
This game is Mavericks trolling heaven so far— The Strickland (@TheStrickland) April 3, 2021
Luka taking after KP here and airballs a FREE THROW pic.twitter.com/UFi19D7Rm9
Consecutive 3s from Immanuel and Alec Burks capped an 11-0 run that saw the Knicks take the lead after one. In the second quarter Obi Toppin showed out in his finest stretch of play all year, lending support to the argument that having your lottery pick do nothing but hand off dribbles and loiter behind the arc may be inadvisable.
Aggressive Obi getting going??? pic.twitter.com/rqjxU8SGde— The Strickland (@TheStrickland) April 3, 2021
Obi steal to a Burks 3, OUR BOY IS COOKIN pic.twitter.com/9qCUWasbaf— The Strickland (@TheStrickland) April 3, 2021
I once lived with a partner who had a 19-year-old dog. They were deaf, blind, and peed and pooped all over the house (the dog, not the partner). When they finally decided it was time for a merciful death (the partner, not the dog), they got the dog a steak about as big as the dog itself for its final meal. I remember with fondness watching that little lost creature in rapturous heaven working that steak all night. I’m always afraid I’m including too many video clips in recaps, but it was so nice seeing Toppin playing and not thinking. Felt good, right, Obi?
Consider those clips the steak and you the sick dying dog — that was the high point, trust me. Everything after is pain and loss.
Dallas followed another 11-0 New York run with an 18-2 run to close the half. In the third Randle looked not only ineffective, but out of sorts. Like his mind was somewhere else completely. On top of his struggles, the Knicks were cold from behind the arc. Some more than others.
The Mavs weren’t world-beaters either, but they hit enough to be Knick-beaters.
The Knick bench, so good in the first half, was outplayed by the Mavs’ reserves in the second. ‘Member him?
The fourth quarter was the only thing worse than a fake comeback: the Knicks going gently into the long night. Jalen Brunson made six shots and they were all beauts or backbreakers; this 3 put Dallas up 10 with five minutes left.
Two minutes after that Brunson bucket, the Knicks had only scored six points all quarter. You ever been single and gone out and it seems like the whole world is dating? When you’re stuck on six points nine minutes into a quarter, your opponent doing this is the equivalent of strangers putting on public displays of affection. Indecently public affection.
The Mavs won because the better team played better. That doesn’t mean this one didn’t leave lingering questions after the final horn, questions I hope someone asked Thibodeau about later.
- Questions like: how come Toppin sat the whole third quarter when he was playing maybe his best game of the year and Randle his worst? After that second-quarter flare of success, Toppin played a grand total of four fourth-quarter minutes.
- On a night that Elfrid Payton played just 14 minutes and Rose and Quickley were a combined 3-of-19 shooting, why was Frank Ntilikina a DNP? Especially given his play against Dončić in the past?
- Does the coaching staff have a plan B if Randle is ever off? Either to get him going or to hot-wire the offense? His pull-ups were clanging and he grew detrimentally deferential. Yeah, he had 11 assists, but just as players can fall into taking the shots the defense gives them, Randle’s dimes weren’t the offshoot of Dallas doubling or tripling him because he was scoring so much. Randle was bothered by KP’s size inside, then he couldn’t hit from the perimeter, then he was looking to pass first, second and third. I imagine the Mavs were happy with Randle’s role shrinking so drastically.
- “Somebody got to Randle,” my fiancee said late in the game. “Told him to throw the game.” If so, the other Knicks were in on the fix, too. This was a weird awful performance. Like everyone ate together before the game and caught the same case of food poisoning.
- Late in the game Alec Burks had 18 points on just six field goal attempts. Maybe time to mark him as someone they better re-sign this summer.
- Luka: 26, 8 and 7 on a night he didn’t even have his best stuff. What he did have was plenty.
- KP had a lousy night shooting from deep, missing seven of eight 3-point attempts. I remembered very much wanting the Knicks to pair him with Randle when I thought he’d re-sign with NY. What an interesting pairing.
- The NBA’s gotta do something about teams fouling whenever anything resembling a fast break gets going. Watching the best players in the world get out on odd-man rushes is something many of us enjoy, even when it happens to our team.
- Dallas’ Nicolo Melli looks kinda like Reek from Game of Thrones.
- The Knicks have played 49 games this year and I’m positive Walt Frazier has said “That should never happen” regarding cross-court passes in every one of them. Look out, Joe DiMaggio. Your streak is in jeopardy.
- My fiancee’s favorite Knick was Trey Burke, who’s now her favorite player period. I feel like she’s never seen Burke miss, the opposite of how she never seems to see Carmelo Anthony play, much less play well. As soon as Burke checked in he hit a shot. “Being useful, as always,” she said. He was also useful adding to Taj Gibson’s 2021 highlight reel.
We got no qualms with Knicks legend Trey Burke but also GET THE HELL OUTTA TAJ'S PAINT pic.twitter.com/TEVQCWJHyO— The Strickland (@TheStrickland) April 3, 2021
Quoth Clyde on the Knick defense late: “Worse than Swiss cheese.” Maybe, but 86 the 86 and replace it was a score from any decade besides the 1990s and it’s a whole other ballgame. Speaking of which, next game is tonight in Detroit. The Pistons are not the Mavs. Should be a whole other ballgame; even if the Knicks lose, it can’t be uglier to watch than this one was.