They say nothing lasts forever. They say there is always an exception that proves a rule. Both things combined on a fateful Saturday in New York as the Knicks lost a matchup for the first time in 10 games... against 39-year-old LeBron James, 113-105 at the Garden.
As Airfeet put it in the Game Thread’s comments section, referring to the Knickerbocker players: “They’re gassed.”
Saturday marked the fourth consecutive game missed by defensive lynchpin OG Anunoby. It’s also the second game without Quentin Grimes and the third with Julius Randle out. Add the fact that Mitchell Robinson is also on the shelves, and that makes it four early-season starters ruled out for the game against the Lakers, three if you don’t want to consider Grimes part of that unit anymore and at the very least two if you also fade Mitch.
The consequences have not been devastating, mind you, but Tom Thibodeau’s tendencies along with a monster accumulation of minutes through the past week-and-change were always going to end with the bend-don’t-break approach to the game the Knicks had shown of late.
Four starters logged 40+ minutes against the Lake Show. The other one, Isaiah Hartenstein, stopped his clock at a sizable 33. That’s not hundred percent ludicrous, but the usage of just two (yes, Malachi Flynn also played but he got three minutes of run) bodies in relieving duties for 15 and 20 minutes respectively is most definitely wild and predictably unsustainable in the long run.
Making the impossible look possible, LeBron James appeared in his 32nd game in the World’s Most Famous Arena at age 39 in his 21st professional season. He led all Lakers in minutes (40), points scored (24), and steals (two) while adding five rebounds and five dimes apiece.
If you’re a Knicks fan on the #LBJtoNYK bandwagon, keep your hopes alive for a potential trade between now and the Feb. 8 deadline—as I already said in the intro, there is always a dumb exception for an irrevocable rule, and LeBron is the embodiment of such a thing, so who knows what lies ahead...
What Lebron James actually did— Big Knick Energy (@BigKnickEnergy_) February 4, 2024
What Knicks twitter saw pic.twitter.com/Imkwo7NPSq
At least we can live in peace after losing one of the last 10 games (read that again, people, just one-in-ten!) as we got the nth confirmation Jalen Brunson is a legitimate All-Star-caliber phenom, that the likes of Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo have gone nowhere, and that everybody keeps doing everything and then some to keep the Knicks afloat amid an impossibly unlucky string of injuries.
Not only did Brunson have to play 45 minutes on a freaking weekend—he did so with gusto, bagged 36 points, and dished out 10 dimes for his third double-double of the year.
Hart joined his former Nova teammate on that front, only by putting up double figures in the points (12) and rebounds (11) columns while the new starters in New York’s frontcourt had another impressive outing scoring 16 points and pulling down 23 rebounds between them.
Hartenstein led the Knicks in blocks with two and Achiuwa fell just a couple of rebounds short of dub-dubbing himself.
On a final note about the starting unit, DiVo got greenlighted by Thibs once again, making it four consecutive matchups for the Big Ragu in which he’s hoisted 22+ shots, and nine straight shooting at least 10 field goal attempts.
DiVincenzo didn’t have his absolute-best day at the office (10-of-22 FGA, 6-of-16 3PA, 59.1 TS%) but he more than made up for that with the gaudy volume, racking up buckets in bunches and finishing with 26 points, the second-most by Knick on Saturday and 14 more than third-best Hart.
That pic above (h/t @IQfor3), however, tells you the story of the game. And in fairness, it doesn’t take a genius to come up with such a strategy when facing a team that is missing more than two starters (both capable shooters with different profiles) while simply having no depth in their bench.
The Lakers decided to ruin Brunson’s life and to let the rest of the New York players beat them—which they miserably failed to do this weekend.
After DiVo scored a three-point shot to make it 96-94 in favor of his team with 7:25 left to play, the Knicks went dry for nearly seven minutes, finally scoring two points on another field goal with a little over 39 seconds left... and the game nothing but over, LAL 113, NYK 105. Sheesh...
“The start of the fourth, we’re up six,” Thibodeau said. “There was a big turnover, we gave up a 3 in transition, they got momentum... and it turned the game right there.“
“They were just sending two defenders whenever there was any action that was happening,” Brunson said. “I was either trying to get around it or just hitting the roll man to make the play, relocating and finding a way to still be impactful. I think we made good plays throughout the game, just not enough.”
In the final quarter, the Knicks shot 7-of-22. Only DiVincenzo and Brunson scored more than one field goal each. Beating the double-team scheme applied by Lakers head coach Darvin Ham was never going to work.
During the nine-game winning streak, the Knicks have been able to beat opponents on pure defense. Those victories came in outings in which New York limited their rivals to fewer than 110 points each and every game. Only the Wizards and the Heat topped 105.
Go all the way back to Jan. 1, when the Knicks played their first game of the OG era, and the same rings true. In the 18 games that have followed the trade, the Knicks have only lost one game in which they limited their opponent to fewer than 110 points (a 98-94 stinker at Orlando).
They are scoring reasonably well and they have a top-10 offensive rating in the last 10 games through Saturday’s loss against the Lakers. The problem, as Los Angeles let everybody across the league know, is that outside of Brunson and the occasional/random/lucky game in which some unknown drops 25 out of the blue, this team (without Randle and OG; the rest of the absentees are also part of the random-scorer bucket) cannot put a ball in the basket.
In that same 10-game span, the Knicks reserves (defined as players to come off the bench in those particular outings) logged only the 20th-best ORtg compared to a top-four DRtg.
Going a bit further, counting from the start of the 2024 calendar year, the Knicks reserves have the seventh-worst ORtg league-wide. The DRtg, again, is sublime (second best) but as Melo put it recently, “The game is supposed to be about getting buckets.”
Will the Knicks go hunting for a scorer in the next few days? I hope the answer is yes.
Help is coming (we have to assume) with banged-up players eventually returning, mind you, but it’s going to be hard for this team to get anywhere past the first round of the playoffs if they cannot find alternatives to scoring outside of Brunson banking his 30-a-pop points. And no, praying for the Garden Gods to touch a random Knickerhead day in and day out is not going to work for long, let alone come April and May.
The best thing about the loss? Soon enough (next Tuesday against the Grizzlies, tip-off at 7:30, don’t miss it!) we will have another winning streak to cheer for. Moving on.