The New York Knicks have seen a lot of zone defense in the past few weeks. The Bucks played for most of their game against the Knicks and the Heat relied on it heavily in the fourth quarter. Zone defense is usually played against teams that struggle to make jump shots or young team without a enough experience, as it can lead to a lot of bad shots and or turnovers. The Knicks currently rank 11th in the league in three-point percentage, but rank 25th in three-point makes a game. On top of that, they don’t have a single player in the top 65 in three-point makes per game. So it made a lot of sense for both Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer and Heat coach Eric Spoelstra to turn to it.
Against the Bucks, the Julius Randle-less Knicks were able to come away with the victory against a depleted Milwaukee squad, but it wasn’t necessarily because of their play against the zone defense. The Knicks were held under their season average for points, which was depressing considering the Bucks were without Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and Donte DiVincenzo. The zone defense did it’s job as it forced the Knicks, who only take 29 3 pointers a game, to take 44 attempts. While they shot it around their season average of 37.2%, 10 of the 16 makes came from two players: Alec Burks, who led the way with 21 points, going 6-12 from the three-point line, and Immanuel Quickley, who contributed 13 points off the bench. The rest of the team shot 6-21 (28.5%).
Now, these numbers are not great, but at least the Knicks got some pretty good looks at the basket. The team as a whole committed just three more turnovers than their season average and attacked the zone the right way.
The bigs would flash to the free-throw line and draw the defense in, and kick out (above), or the guards would pass the ball around the perimeter without trying to beat the zone with the dribble (below).
Even when they were not able to find an open perimeter shot, Derrick Rose and RJ Barrett were able to attack off the pass and find their way to the paint. The Knicks were also aided by their transition offense, as they were able to score 22 points off 16 Bucks turnovers.
It was a different story against the Heat though, as a more talented (compared to an injury-depleted Bucks squad) and experienced Heat team used their defensive prowess, size, and length to stifle the Knicks.
The game was a low-scoring affair overall as the Knicks held the Heat to 98 points, but their offense let them down to the tune of a paltry 88 points. Even with Julius Randle back, they struggled to find their shot and made just 10 of the 36 three-pointers they took. On top of that, they shot just 60% from the free-throw line and only had 15 assists, 13 fewer than their total against the Bucks.
The Knicks have the basketball IQ and veteran facilitators to know where to get the ball and how to play against the zone, but they do lack a dominant big man who can consistently draw attention at the free-throw line, and they also lack consistent shooting from the perimeter. Because of this, teams may take advantage of this by continuing to utilize the zone defense against them going forward.
This may mean more minutes for Quickley, Burks, and even players like Frank Ntilikina, who actually leads the team in 3P% and Kevin Knox, ranks fifth. There is also a scenario that Tom Thibodeau, a defensive-minded coach, sticks with what has worked and does not worry too much about the lack of shooting. Regardless of what happens, don’t be surprised if opposing coaches turn to the zone defense more and more against the Knicks until they can prove that they can knock down perimeter shots at a more consistent rate.