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I don’t ask for much from this team but for some reason I’m still always left feeling disappointed. Last night the Knicks took their latest defeat against the Grizzlies, falling 120-108 at the Garden. At times this game felt competitive. At other times it felt like your ordinary run-of-the-mill 2021-22 Knicks game. Glancing at some of the numbers in the box score, it looks like the Knicks had a successful game: Evan Fournier erupted again for 30 points and knocked down 8-of-12 three-pointers; RJ Barrett bounced back nicely and scored 23 more; & Mitchell Robinson put up a phenomenal 14 points, 11 rebounds, and eight blocks. But they lost pretty badly.
There are two things that make for an utter disaster when you play a young, athletic team like the Grizzlies: if you turn the ball over they will make you pay, and if you’re a step slow defensively they will make you their prey. The Knicks, last night, turned it over an entire 15 times (11 from the starters), leading to a number of open looks in transition for Memphis. The Grizzlies scored 17 points in fastbreak last night. Guys like Julius Randle (18 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists) had some more egregious sequences dogging it on the other end. You also had Kemba Walker (zero points again) continuing to be super slow on his rotations and playing horrific ball screen defense. And you had an epic sequence of errors late in the game from Immanuel Quickley (11 points, five assists) to put the icing on the cake.
So despite the Knicks either being a point or two away at times — or at most one “run” away — this one just felt way too sloppy to be satisfied with much at all. Even if they were somewhat more competitive than expected. At halftime the Knicks were within a dozen points. A few minutes into the third they cut it to five. But it always ended up being countered on the other end. Memphis was way too fast and ran New York out of the gym during some stretches.
Ja Morant was actually held in check. Barrett, who was fortunately tasked with him instead of Kemba, did a nice job making the point guard work (as did Mitch who we’ll get to later). The Knick wing helped hold the budding superstar to 23 points on 9-for-27 shooting. However, Jaren Jackson Jr. & Ziaire Williams combined to shoot a remarkable 68% together for 47 points. Bench players like Brandon Clarke (10 points), De’Anthony Melton (14 points), and even the league’s slowest player Kyle Anderson (four points) were also hurting New York in the full-court game too. Memphis got up 102 shots last night to New York’s 88. They were determined to push. The Knicks could not slow them.
The second half was definitely more difficult for me to watch. I hate late mistakes and I hate allowing offensive rebounds in crunch time. The Knicks, as you’d guess, did both. They were doubled on the offensive glass in the second half, and in the final quarter they forced bad possessions that either led to poor shots or more turnovers. Now Quickley had his moments of glory, don’t get me wrong. He led the charge for a bit there in the fourth with nine points and four assists. But to tell me he was all give and no take would be a blatant lie.
After stringing together a pair of three-point buckets to bring the ‘Bockers within five, IQ did not exactly play up to his initials. He forced a contested floater on Desmond Bane which was blocked, and then on the next Knicks possession IQ drove into traffic and was stripped. Each time this resulted in points for Memphis and doubled the deficit. By then time was running out and IQ had also missed some open threes. It wasn’t completely on him, but I did think that was the start of that spiral late. Once IQ began struggling, I would have liked to see Quentin Grimes (four points, two steals) get some closing minutes there but I do understand.
Going back to the third quarter, Thibodeau continued to do his favorite thing in the world. He once again would leave the starters in for a chunk of the period. That also hurt the Knicks’ chances. Did Kemba really need to play 11 of those third quarter minutes when he did not have it? On one sequence, the Knick point guard front-rimmed a three-pointer and then came back on the next possession to air-ball a mid-range. If that wasn’t an indicator that his knees were shot I do not know what was. Thibs still kept him in the game despite not producing a thing, though.
Hopefully if Leon Rose can’t find a trade partner by next Thursday then he and the front office can at least waive Kemba’s $8 million. Listen, I understand he’s a respected veteran and all, but this is also a business. And right now, in their situation, the New York Knicks cannot afford this from Walker any further. His health is an issue, first and foremost. He’s either being scratched late because the knees are barking, playing through it ineffectively, or has to be scheduled to sit on certain days. His elite offensive performances come far and few between as well, especially when you consider his defense is basically nonexistent at this point. It’s rough, but it can be fixed if they end it.
Randle’s night looked great on the surface. He just missed a triple-double by one assist. But at the same time, watching the game, it still wasn’t the most positive impact performance from the Knick power forward. There were frequent defensive mishaps by Julius throughout the night on Jackson and he was often punished by it on the scoreboard. His body language was evident once again and he let his emotions get the best of him twice, eventually being ejected after his second tech.
By the end of the night, Randle finished shooting 39% from the field, 17% from three, and 60% at the line. Simply missing the same shots he so often made last season continues to be a problem for the big man. But despite all of this, there will always be some positives when you flirt with a triple-double. I liked that Randle did not settle much. Of his 18 attempts from the field, 10 were inside the semi-circle and he also got to the foul line five times. He was rolling hard to the basket without the ball, attacking the hoop more with it, and the jumpers he did take were mostly open looks within the flow of the offense. I also thought his passing was efficient, creative, and decisive. He did not wait too long to swing it, leading to only two turnovers which was his lowest total in nine games.
It was another tough loss against a team who simply just has more talent than New York. Still, there could’ve been more adjustments made. But Thibs keeps forcing the same rotation down our throats nightly, where the starters get ran into the ground and the bench get very little run. I get that the starters outplayed the second unit in this game. However, with Kemba Walker & Alec Burks combining to make zero field goals in over 30 minutes, you’re telling me some of the young prospects on the bench couldn’t get a bit longer of a look?
I mean think about it: the Knicks played a team who outshot them 41% on threes to 33%, torched their defense with 120 points, and completely outran them at times. Am I wrong or did they not just trade for an athletic 6’8″ wing who can run, defend, and shoot? Cam Reddish instead got his fourth DNP-CD since being available for seven games now. I do not understand that, especially if they keep telling the fans they are going for it in this playoff push. Why not adjust then?
It’s hard to look at all these other teams and see them play their young guys while the Knicks are extra conservative. Haliburton has been averaging over 30 minutes since entering the league; Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes, and Jalen Green are getting their fair share of runtime; so are Suggs & Wagner in Orlando; so is Giddey in OKC. Ok sure, those are tanking teams. But you have contenders too letting their young guys cook. Cleveland has let Garland, Okoro, and Sexton get their share; Toronto plays Barnes for 36 minutes a night! Charlotte is playing LaMelo Ball a ton.
The Knicks will play some of their guys but at the same time you look up and wonder why does a 36-year old Taj Gibson average more minutes than 23-year old Toppin? Why does Taj play in the second half of blowouts and rookie Jericho Sims can’t get a look? Why doesn’t Randle get a few minutes off before the fourth quarter so he’s well rested for it? Why does Kemba need to average 26 minutes a night? On nights when Fournier & Burks aren’t knocking down their shots, why can’t Reddish see the floor?
I have said this a tiring amount of times but I will repeat it for new readers: I am not saying these young players need to take every single minute from the vets either. Otherwise, that would lead to results just as mediocre or even worse than this current rotation. However, I do believe it could be balanced out just a tad bit more. Thibs is very stubborn, and very hellbent on giving his veterans minutes that it hurts the team quite often. I truly do believe with more of a flexible rotation the Knicks would be sitting in the midst of the playoff race instead of the play-in race.
That all said, folks, I do still see a lot of positives in the big picture, believe it or not. I feel like a lot of my articles on the Knicks this season have been very realistic/pessimistic if anything, so I do want to take time before finishing this piece to highlight some of those bright spots. And that is the way some of the Knick youth is playing. In particular, it seems as if some of these kids are coming into their own. Barrett, Toppin, Robinson, and now Grimes are all hitting their rhythms at once and it’s beautiful to see.
It was good that Barrett was able to rebound last night after shooting 29% in his last two contests heading in. He wasn’t lights out or anything but he was 7-for-17 from the field and 8-of-11 on free-throws for the 23 points. He ran the ball-handling duties along the second unit in that first half with Burks struggling and had a big third quarter where he dropped 11. I think in the fourth he could’ve been featured a lot more but overall it was nice to see him bounce back on national television.
I think on this stretch that Barrett is on he is making better rim reads. It’s his decision-making on the fly that’s improved his scoring production and efficiency. He still is going to have to work on finishing against those lengthy defenders, and I would like to see RJ start to incorporate the mid-range again which he’s got away from, but seeing him get more on-ball reps for an extended period is a good sign from Thibodeau.
If the Knicks can get Kemba out of here like we discussed then it’ll only help Barrett that much more. Whenever he gets to be the primary playmaker, RJ is pretty excellent in that pistol action with Mitch. They have ran some DHO together but in most of those sets they like to run that 3-5 pick-and-roll and it’s successful such a large portion of the time. The RJ-Mitch lineup combo is probably my favorite tandem on the team.
Over his last 17 games, Barrett is averaging 22 points, six rebounds, and three assists. He is shooting 44% from the field, 37% on threes, and 68% on foul line shots. He has to start hitting his free-throws as the second leading scorer on the team but the bright spot is that he’s finally getting to the line again. In this span RJ is averaging seven attempts at the line per game. In his first 28 games before this he was only generating three a night. With Thibs including him more in the offense, RJ is able to play his bully-ball game.
I also think we underrate him as a rebounder. Not that people think he’s a bad rebounder but they don’t talk about it enough. Maybe 5.7 is nothing to go crazy about but considering he’s a wing it’s a decent number. In fact, to put it into some better perspective, per NBA.com, RJ Barrett is ranked 10th in rebounding among all players shorter than 6’7.” So while the defense needs work, he is at least putting in effort on the board on a consistent basis. All in all though, I just love the way RJ has turned around his season from earlier in the year.
Last night may not have been one to remember for Grimes — he was neither good nor bad — but he’s also been nothing but a plus since cracking the rotation. I see him as a foundational piece to this team. He is a keeper. He checks in and makes an instant impact on the defensive side of the floor. He plays excellent help D, he hounds and pressures the ball when he’s on his own man, and he’s a menace in the passing lanes by creating turnovers even if they don’t always show up as steals. The defense is probably why Grimes is a rare exception when it comes to the (pretty true) narrative of Thibodeau not playing rookies.
Grimes can play offense too, we know this. He is shooting almost 40% from the arc this season and makes 1.5 per game despite only a 16 minutes average. He comes in, frees himself open off backscreens, squares himself to the basket, and catches & shoots without hesitation. As I mentioned last article it is very JJ Reddick/Danny Green type in how he positions himself before the catch and also how quickly he releases his shot. You could even say that Grimes is like Fournier in that way in that he doesn’t need to be on the ball. He’s active. You have to love that about a rookie too, being compared to veterans already. Grimes is going to make a fabulous role player.
The other night Mitch cracked the top-five in blocks for the franchise. Considering the guys above him have a ton of more games under their belt that is impressive. Last night with eight more he is up to 400 on the dot in his NBA career. I have to admit I was extremely hesitant — and sometimes against — giving Mitchell Robinson his contract extension earlier in the season. And maybe the Knicks were too. They drafted Sims, extended Noel, and you started hearing the Myles Turner rumors again.
However, what Mitch has done lately has definitely changed my mind. He’s gotten himself back into shape over the last month or two and it’s clearly showing on the court. In his last 22 games Robinson is averaging numbers that I hope (and am starting to think) he can average over a full season going forward. He is producing 11 points per game, 10 rebounds, two blocks, and almost one steal, shooting 83%, all in 26 minutes.
He is eligible for extension now as a free-agent this summer but I do think the offer will come sooner rather than later. Now as I’ve said, I am definitely willing to pay the guy now if I’m in the front office. But also, I do think there should still be some proceeding with caution if you’re New York. This is a guy with a slight frame still, he still gets a bit winded after playing 30 minutes, and every time he falls down I brace myself. I also don’t love the fact that in year four of his career he has yet to crack double-figure points and rebounds. Again, if what we’re seeing from Mitch is legit during this span, well then we’re good. But, do keep in mind that he is a more traditional rim running big who lacks an offensive package.
If the Knicks had themselves a stretch at any of the two frontcourt positions I would not be against paying Mitch more money. However, they have him, Taj, Noel, Sims, Randle, and Toppin. Not one of those men are shooters. They do most of their work inside the semi-circle. That could be an issue going forward. I keep thinking back to that Atlanta series when the Hawks were shadowing Julius with a help defender in the back line. The more guys who score inside the paint the more attention it draws. It prevented the Knicks from scoring in rim run offense in that series.
That said, if I’m playing GM I think I am offering Mitch a $60 million contract for four years. That is an annual salary of $15 million and I believe that’s plenty fair considering everything we just went over. The Turner rumors still intrigue me just not as much. However, we could hopefully some day soon not have this spacing issue in the front court. And that will depend on if Obi Toppin develops that jump shot or not.
Obi has had a great year off the bench as one of the main spark plugs of the second unit. He comes in, attacks the glass, runs the open floor, cuts hard & plays well in short roll actions in the halfcourt, and is overall just an athletic freak. Lately he has started to show a bit more versatility, too, which could be really beneficial. He’s putting the ball on the floor which we talked about the other day, but he’s been shooting the three.
Entering yesterday’s game he was 41% over an eight-game stretch. That’s way too small of a sample size to use as an indicator (7-of-17) but it does at least give you an idea of what this offense could look like does he start hitting more of those corner looks. With his shooting added to his high-tempo transition play, the Knick offense could once and for all be streamlined a little bit.
See, I told you I can be positive? I am very satisfied to be getting good play from some of the core. Hopefully it can translate going forward to the rest of the team because the Knicks are going to need it and need it bad. They’ve got a five-game road trip on the horizon starting this weekend. It’ll be the Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets, Warriors, and Blazers in that order. Saturday in LA we kick it off.