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There was never going to be a chance last night for the Knicks. They could have traded for LeBron James last minute, but it would have been a loss. The Miami Heat present way too much of a matchup issue for this Knicks team, and have for years. Miami is athletic, versatile with their size, well coached, they play hard-nosed defense, and are the No. 1 seed in the East. And with this current Knicks team being pretty much the exact opposite in each of those aspects this season, it was especially predictable.
That does not mean it didn’t bother me. Everybody and their mother knew this had the makings of a bad loss, but to actually then witness the Knicks get completely ran out of the gym with zero competitive spirit is irritating beyond belief. Last night Miami defeated New York 110-96, shot 50%-43%-91% versus the Knicks’ 42%-34%-65% and somehow it feels like the numbers still don’t depict how poorly the Knicks played.
There was zero energy from the tip. The Heat, meanwhile, were playing excellent defense as they pressured the ball and forced the Knicks into almost as many first quarter turnovers as field goals made. With five turnovers, New York’s lack of focus gave Miami free fastbreak looks and the possessions where New York didn’t turn it over may as well have been with the amount of poor looks they were settling for. It was one pass and shoot every time, and by the end of the shot clock the Knicks always found themselves at the top of the key.
The starting unit needs a shakeup. It’s gotten to a point where it’s not just Knicks fans repeating this nonsense. Last night on the ESPN telecast, Thibodeau’s old pal Jeff Van Gundy was heavily criticizing the head coach. I am paraphrasing here but basically what JVG said was how badly the starting lineup needs a shakeup and how much he enjoys watching the bench play.
It did not end there, though. In the postgame, while Julius Randle (11 points) decided to skip his ninth press conference in his last dozen games, leaving his teammates to face the music for him once again, Evan Fournier passively criticized Coach Thibs as well. Fournier kept repeating to the media that the Knicks need to change up their gameplan and adapt as this current rotation has been flopping.
If this isn’t everything I and every other Knicks fan have been asking for all season I don’t exactly know what is. The funniest thing is Fournier is part of the Knicks’ woeful starting lineup struggles. Last night, the three usual culprits–Walker, Fournier, and Randle–combined to shoot a miserable 33% for 25 points on 27 attempts. They also had eight turnovers vs. four assists while each of them continued to play zero defense. The amount of times I witnessed Walker fail to keep the ball handler in front of him or fail to close-out on simple, short rotations is higher than I can count to.
New York was down 13-2 before Thibodeau called his first timeout. But that wasn’t enough of a bludgeoning to make a switch yet, so instead Thibodeau waited until Miami cracked 20 points just midway through the first to finally make a change. The first guy off the bench had to have been someone who’s been playing well, right? Maybe a Grimes or a Toppin? Cam? Wrong. Alec Burks–shooting 23% in his last six games now–was the first one to come rescue this starting unit. He did not accomplish that feat, shooting 1-for-8 for three points altogether.
Taj Gibson was the next off the bench just a few possessions later. Hey, I like Taj. He is a solid veteran to have and can fill in nicely when needed. But the man is a limited 36-year old with no more upside left to reach. Does he have to be the first big off the bench? Does he have to be averaging more minutes than Obi Toppin and Jericho Sims? Did he have to be playing late second half when the Knicks were down 30 points? Look at the era we’re in. Size and defense only does so much. You need speed, athleticism, scoring. Not to mention these young guys play very hard on defense, too.
Why not let your draft picks and prospects who have been the only ones to produce for this team come in early each half to try and jumpstart things? Quentin Grimes got three and a half minutes of time at the end of the first, Immanuel Quickley got less than one minute, and Toppin did not see one second of floor time in the opening term. The Knicks entered the second quarter already down 30-16 mostly due to the extremely slow pace of that starting unit and a failure to make adjustments. It really set the tone.
Obi finally checked in during the second quarter. And once again the young man produced. He actually finished the night leading the ‘Bockers in points with 18. He checks in and is immediately active on the glass, he’s running the break, and goes 3-for-3 with a pair of dunks and a three-pointer, giving him seven points in just over six minutes. What happens not long after? He gets pulled for Kemba with five minutes left in the half. And so does Quickley for Randle, after playing defense, distributing the ball around, and knocking down some shots himself. The game was over by the start of the third where the starters visibly mailed it in following a brief 11-2 Heat run.
In the postgame, Thibs continues to have a lot of balls, I will give him that. The man has the audacity to sit there every press conference and bring up energy level, yet as the guy who holds the keys to make those adjustments, he continues to let the lackluster veterans play while the youth gets shunned on the bench. By the time the young players got any run last night the game was well over in fourth quarter garbage time. You could see the body language on some of them as they didn’t even want to be out there at that point and I don’t blame them.
The fact that Coach Thibs sat there and thought sticking with the same old template rotation and boring lineup combinations would help compete against the Heat is laughable. Sometimes it feels like us fans are being trolled because it’s so obvious. There are examples left and right, up and down, everywhere that indicate the Knicks play better with different, more creative lineup combos.
Per Fred Katz via Twitter, the starting unit of Walker-Fournier-Barrett-Randle-Robinson is -11.5 per 100 possessions this season yet have played together the third most of any lineup in the NBA. Mix it up! Stagger RJ away from that Kemba-Randle lineup more! Something!
You also have the Toppin-Randle tandem which has worked pretty successfully this season. I think for as long as either of them are around Randle should be ran with the bench unit more often so he’s forced to play a little faster. Seeing how disengaged Julius was last night was disgusting, even for his standards. So change it then. We rarely ever see the Toppin-Randle pairing. Per Basketball-Reference, those two actually play so little together they don’t even crack the top-20 two-man lineups in minutes played!
And then there is Fournier who is shooting a career-low field goal percentage and is averaging his lowest points per game since year three when he was an inexperienced 22-year old. Last night he scored seven points. It was his 19th time this year in single-digits and his fourth time in the last six games. Yet, Mr. Fournier has started in every single game he’s played in this year, probably only because he was just paid $73 million and the Knicks don’t want to look bad.
It’s simple things like that. Nobody is saying to stop playing the veterans completely and only play the youth. That would not be the way. The Heat are actually a perfect example of blending, though. Spoelstra plays solid veterans like Butler & Lowry but also lets their young talent like Adebayo, Robinson, and Herro do their thing. I feel Thibs’ old school stubborn ways, combined with the business aspect of it all, is 100% hurting this Knicks team.
We’re at a point where something has to happen soon. Some think Randle is either dealing with some off-court issues, is hurt, unhealthy in some way, who knows… I just think he is not made for New York City. The only sample we have to look at is how he’s played without fans in the seats versus how he’s handling things with fans. He has such a tremenodus season last year. Fans started trickling in and once the playoffs hit full capacity was allowed and Randle folded. And this year we’re seeing it again. His percentages across the board are down, we had the whole thumbs down thing, the media unavailability, you see the body langue, isolating himself when on the bench or from team huddles, etc. He does not seem to have that New York alpha leadership and that’s ok but it does need to be dealt with.
Thibodeau has so far failed to deal with it so one can only hope Leon Rose puts politics aside and deals with Randle himself before February 10th. At this point, watching this roster, I think buying would be a terrible idea at the deadline. The best option in my opinion is selling, and at least attempting to explore the market for Randle. If you can’t move him (yet) that’s fine. Not expected. It can be done maybe in the summer or hopefully sometime next season the latest. But at least sell off some of these vets though.
Fournier is stealing money, Burks is taking time away from the younger guys, and even Nerlens Noel’s new contract has been dreadful considering he is barely on the floor anymore. Kemba only costs $8 million so that can be waived. But something needs to happen that shows this front office is trying to make progress. I don’t even remember what Leon Rose even looks like it’s been that long since the man spoke to his city. So I hope it’s not another stalemate deadline like last year. Otherwise the “LOL Knicks” narrative will make it’s return sooner rather than later if it has not yet already.
Oh and the defending champs are up next. So that’s nice…