Who the hell are these Knicks? There are multiple answers, none of them entirely accurate. Tonight we saw the version that comes out lethargic, letting a lesser quality team hop out to an early lead and an eventual loss at home.
Outside of the meaningless Kemba Walker benching early in the season, Thibodeau has tinkered very little to the core of the starting line-up. The other four players have stayed the same. So how can he expect different results when he has kept what hasn't worked the same?
This has led to consistent issues with the starting lineup to start the game. First, Thibodeau seems to try to get Evan Fournier going early. By the end of the first quarter, Fournier led the team in shots taken with four, but hit just one of them. He wouldn't play most of the second half, one of the few good decisions Thibodeau made this game. Second, Julius Randle tends to begin the game in facilitating mode, trying to do his best not to appear selfish and aware of his ISO-heavy tendencies. He ended the first quarter with five assists. By the end of the game, he had tacked on just one more assist to go along with four points on 1-9 shooting. Overall, it was one of his worst games of the season, and his selfish, whiney body language only made matters worse.
By the start of the second quarter, Clyde commented on the hostile tone of the Garden crowd. Why? Because out of 10 Pelicans players who had taken the floor, only three shot below 50% percent from the field by that point. This led to an 11-3 run and a Pelicans 10-point lead midway through the quarter.
With no superstar to bail the team out, and no true point guard to facilitate the offense, the Knicks are left to run the same action and schemes over and over, game after game. A 22-24 record is indicative of that. Hence, the chaotic identities this Knicks team has taken on this season.
A few things could help with this. First, it’s not Tom Thibodeau’s fault Walker has been so undependable due to injuries. It’s a crapshoot most nights on whether Walker’s bum knee is good to go or if Alec Burks will have to fill his role at the point. Consistently at the most crucial position would go a long way in alleviating these issues. Most fans can see by now that the Knicks offense is at its best when run through RJ Barrett. Like Randle, Barrett can over-depend on ISO plays to get going, but he tends to take better care of the ball and drives to the basket instead of settling for long jumpers.
Speaking of Randle, he didn’t score until literally at the halftime buzzer, taking his usual facilitating approach to its extreme. He followed it up by complaining at the lack of calls, which earned him a tech. Sound familiar? The Knicks tying a season-low in points in the half with 42 points also sounds eerily familiar.
I know Randle hates it, but Knicks fans boo for a reason. It's not about a missed wide-open three or a turn-around fade-a-away that bricks off the iron. Instead, when Knicks fans boo, it's mainly about effort.
The boos were hard and heavy in this game. Halfway through the third quarter, the following sequence occurred: Brandon Ingram drove to the basket and was met by Barrett and Mitchell Robinson, who collapsed, knowing Randle was in a position to recover in case of a pass, which ended up happening. Randle was able to meet Jonas Valanciunas, who caught the pass and rolled to the hoop. But once in place, Randle didn't bother to challenge the shot leading to an easy score by Valanciunas on a lay-in. The next possession for the Pelicans, Josh Hart missed on a drive to the rim, but Hart outhustled Randle, who stood in position to rebound the ball but lost it by not hustling. Hart kicked the ball out to Devonte Graham, who knocked down a triple. It was back-to-back sloppy efforts from Randle, indicative of his effort for the entire game. The Garden had enough and rained down boos from the rafters. If Randle wants the fans to stop booing him, he should start with effort. It’s what the Garden faithful respect the most.
At that point, it would have behooved Randle to put forth a little extra effort, with his team down by 20 to one of the worst clubs in the NBA. Instead, a few possessions later, as Hart shot free throws, the crowd chanted, “O-bi!” On the next play downcourt, the chant extended to “O-bi Top-pin!” You know it's bad when the fans call for your backup to enter the game. By this point, Randle had earned the ire. Would have loved for the fans to have gone full “O-bi-di-ah!”
This group of guys ain’t getting it done. As P&T’er KLoco noted (quoting the legendary Michael Ray Richardson): “The ship be sinking.” So Leon Rose needs to make a move. The two most pressing issues are getting a real point guard and clearing out the log jam on the perimeter. Hopefully, those two problems can be solved with the same transaction. But unfortunately, the boos will continue to be the soundtrack of home games at the Garden until then. And rightly so.
Case in point? The effort put forth by the bench mob in the last five minutes of the game had the Knicks faithful cheering them on. The lineup of Mitchell Robinson, Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes, Obi Toppin, and Alec Burks continued the trend of the bench putting forth more effort than the starters. The Knicks outscored the Pelicans 27- 14 during the fourth quarter. It was tough for that scrappy lineup to buy a bucket with Randle and Barrett on the bench. The trade-off was a free-flowing offense with crisp ball movement and alley-oops between Quickley and Robinson. The ball swung wildly, sometimes sloppily, but at least it moved. This ragtag group of players resembled a scrappy rebuilding team in ability and effort, which isn't as bad as one might think. The Knicks could use more of that selfless energy in MSG.
- Robinson held his own against Valanciunas with another solid outing of 17 and 15. He's been the one bright spot in January.
- The DJ at half-time was super sweaty and feeling his playlist hard. It almost made me want to go to whatever kitschy, overpriced bottle-service club he was sponsored by. Almost.
- No knock on Mitch, but I would want Jonas Valanciunas on the Knicks if I could have any realistic center. The dude can score on the block, hit threes, and pass out of the high post. He's one of the most underrated players in the NBA, and I hate he’s forgotten about in New Orleans. Free Jonas!
- It’s comforting to know if worst came to worst, and Thibs was canned, we have Johnnie Bryant next up in the pecking order. He is a smart, trusted, and respected basketball mind. In contrast, the Lakers have probably pulled back on firing Frank Vogel after realizing David Fizdale is next in line.
- When Leon Rose looks to improve this roster, everyone but Barrett and Derrick Rose should be on the table. I know these young guys have endeared themselves to fans, but Rose needs to do whatever it takes to increase the star power on this team. It probably won't happen this season, but nobody should be off-limits when one of these young stars is finally available.
- The third-quarter killed the Knicks again this game. Another case of the Knicks coming out of the locker room unprepared for a punch to the mouth.
- Free throw shooting had plagued the Knicks this season. In the first half, they were 13-19, 68.4%. In the second half, they were 11-17, 66.7%.
- For all the huffing and puffing Thibodeau does on the sidelines, it would be nice if he got tossed one of these games. I wouldn't mind seeing what kind of action Bryant runs in his place. I would also be interested to see how the team (and fans) respond to Thibs being bounced out of the arena.
- With all the chatter about the Knicks' giant hole at point guard, former ‘Bocker Raymond Felton was in the house. For a split second, I felt a ping of nostalgia for his era. He was better than anything we’ve had at the position since.