The Knicks, coming off a rare feel-good win against the Sacramento Kings on Monday, looked to win consecutive games for the first time since their January 12th win over the Dallas Mavericks. And they would have to win against a Memphis Grizzlies team that has exploded on to the scene this year to do so. Led by star point guard Ja Morant, the Grizzlies are a very well coached team. They have a roster of players who play hard on a nightly basis and seem to really enjoy playing with each other. Even with the youngest coach in the league (36 years old), and the second youngest roster (average age of 24.2 years old), the Grizzlies have gotten out to a blazing 36-18 start.
The game started off with a fight for a loose ball right after tip off, and it would prove to foreshadow a lot of what decided this game. The Grizzlies in the past have been known for their hustle and blue-collar mentality, and this year’s iteration of the team is no different. But unlike some previous versions of this team, they are more than just gritty, and it showed early on. Luckily for the Knicks, Mitchell Robinson came to play. He had four quick points in the first four minutes of the game to keep the Knicks close and added four rebounds and a block all before the 5:24 mark when he was subbed out. The Knicks also used two Evan Fournier 3-pointers and seven points from Julius Randle to propel themselves to a solid 27-point quarter. The only problem was, they gave up a whopping 35 to the Grizzlies.
When you first hear that, I’m sure that the first thing that comes to mind is, “Morant probably scored a lot in the quarter”. The Knicks actually held the young guard to six points in the quarter. Instead, it was De’Anthony Melton, the fourth-year backup guard. It’s become a running joke that the Knicks will frequently give up career nights to non-stars, and there was an eerie feeling that Melton might get his turn on this night. He hit three three-pointers in the quarter. On his last one, fans saw the lack of defensive chemistry and effort that has plagued this team at times. With just over three minutes left, the Knicks were down 25-19 and Morant was pushing the ball down the court. Fournier, trying to stop Morant and the ball, picked him up but RJ Barrett and Alec Burks were both guarding Ziaire Williams on the left corner, while Melton walked into a wide open three. Fournier raised his hands in disgust as the shot went up and proceeded to yell at his teammates.
The start to the second quarter was an ugly one as the Grizzlies scored 10 unanswered points, most of which came off of fast breaks. The Knicks have struggled with their fast break defense this year, and it showed as the young and athletic Grizzlies ran all over them for much of the quarter. The Knicks managed to slow down the game a bit, but the Grizzlies still looked strong. With Morant sitting to start the quarter, the Grizzlies went to their big man Jaren Jackson Jr. early and often. Jackson scored eight of his 26 points in the second period which included a spot up three-pointer and a very pretty lefty layup off of an in and out move. The Knicks found themselves down 18 at one point and it was clear which team was third in their conference and which team was twelfths. The Knicks were able to cut the lead down to 12 by halftime thanks to a few more Robinson dunks and a couple more threes from Fournier.
After a very slow first half in which he struggled with his shot, RJ Barrett came out aggressive and looking like a new player in the third quarter. Barrett found success attacking the rim and scored 10 of his 23 points in the period. Randle contributed with six of his 18 points and Fournier continued his hot night with another eight points in the quarter.
Getting 24 points between those three players in a single quarter is a great sign, but the Knicks continued to struggle to stop the Grizzlies. While New York put up another 27 points in the quarter, they still managed to lose the quarter by giving up 28 to Memphis. Morant got a few shots to go in, but continued to struggle from the field, Jackson Jr. only had five points in the quarter, and the Knicks even managed to slow down Melton. But now, it was Ziaire Williams’ turn to take on the role of unlikely player to go off against the Knicks. Williams had been playing solid up until that point but erupted for 12 of his 21 points in the quarter to propel the Grizzlies into the final period.
The fourth quarter started out well for the home team, as they quickly scored 11 points in the first three minutes. It all started with an Obi Toppin alley-oop, followed by a steal and Quentin Grimes dunk, and then the Madison Square Garden crowd went into a frenzy as Immanuel Quickley got an and-one three-pointer to fall. And just when it didn’t seem possible for the arena to get any louder, Quickley pulled up for another three to cut the lead to just 5. The Knicks had all the momentum and their crowd behind them and with renewed life, it was a brand new ball game. Or at least that’s what we thought. The young, resilient Grizzlies team answered the Knicks’ hot start with a 9-0 run of their own and extended the lead back to 11 with just under seven minutes left. And pretty much for the rest of the game, the two teams traded baskets as the Grizzlies won by 12.
"Big-time win for us here on the road. No disrespect for the Knicks, I feel like they're a great team. Got some good pieces, just finishing the puzzle. Same thing we're trying to do. "— Knicks Videos (@sny_knicks) February 3, 2022
"I played like the "s-word" tonight, couldn't throw a rock in the ocean" - Ja Morant pic.twitter.com/6u50ihZPTH
The Knicks definitely showed some heart by staying in this game after going down big in the first half, but having to mount a big comeback might have tired the team out. It seemed like the Grizzlies were able to recover every loose ball and rebound in the final quarter. And that was what it really came down to. As Thibodeau alluded to in the post game press conference, “The offensive rebounding cost [them] the game in the fourth quarter”.
The Knicks played a solid game. They definitely could have turned the ball over less (15 compared to just nine for Memphis) which would have helped their transition defense, giving up 21 points to Williams, who averages only 6.8ppg hurts and they could have done a better job of defending the 3-point line (16-39). But they forced Morant to take tough shots and held him to 23 points on 27 shots, and held second year standout, Desmond Bane to 13 points on 18 shots. Overall, the Knicks did most of what they needed to do for most of the game. But when it came down to the last quarter, the crucial moments, the Grizzlies just found ways to come up with the loose ball.
Mitchell Robinson is the first Knicks player with at least 10 points, 10 rebounds and 8 blocks in a game since Patrick Ewing in 1991— Knicks Stats (@NY_Knicks_Stats) February 3, 2022
I don’t necessarily love moral victories but there are times and places for it. And while this loss is still frustrating, there were definitely some positives to take from it. There is the aforementioned heart of the team for actually battling back and not giving up, Fournier’s continued hot shooting, and Robinson’s dominant performance in which he became the first Knicks’ player with at least 10 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 blocks in a game since Patrick Ewing did it in 1991. The Knicks’ brutal stretch of games still has a ways to go, and unfortunately, if they don’t start pulling off some of these upsets, we may get to a point in the season where we have to start looking for moral victories more often. Every loss puts the Knicks further and further out of playoff contention. While it is still within reach, things will be rough for the foreseeable future. The one good news, is that the Knicks do get to play the Lakers, Jazz and Trailblazers while they are dealing with some injuries to their stars. So there’s hope that if the Knicks play offense like they did on Wednesday night, while getting back to form on defense, they can steal a few much needed wins.