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The inconsistency of this Knicks team can be maddening. They were riding high just a week ago with a homestand coming up of four very winnable games. The first two games were unfortunate losses. But an extremely diplomatic individual would be able to accept that fact, given the Hornets and Timberwolves are currently playoff contending teams.
That loss on Thursday, however, was one nobody can make an excuse for. The Knicks lost to an 11th place Pelicans team that was a dozen games below .500. Fortunately, they bounced back on Sunday vs. the Clippers with a rare matinee victory to salvage the homestand. But let’s go over both games and give our thoughts.
The Pelicans took the Thursday game 102-91. New York turned it over 15 times, turning into 19 Pelicans points on the other end. They shot a ghastly 23% from three and 66% at the free-throw line, while the ball movement was very lackluster. It was such an awful effort–possibly the worst loss of the year–that I don’t think I want to dive too deep into it, honestly. To lose to a team that bad (and remember, they don’t have Zion Williamson still) was humiliating even from here. I just want to discuss a few individual performances and then we’ll touch on the 110-102 win from yesterday vs. LAC.
I thought everybody but RJ Barrett (17 points, six rebounds) and Mitchell Robinson (17 points, 15 rebounds) played very poor basketball. The guard play specifically was really difficult to sit through, as Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, Alec Burks, and Immanuel Quickley combined to shoot below 30% together (38 points, 10-for-35 FG). Meanwhile, Julius Randle put together a whopping four points. As the leader, Randle thought it was more important to whine to officials instead of getting back and playing defense.
Randle’s efforts all season have waned far too much for a guy set to take $117 million from the organization, but this one in particular got to me a little more than usual. I don’t exactly know how to assess Randle as a player–he’s somewhere below star caliber but more than just decent–however, he definitely isn’t LeBron James, we know that. But with the way he carries himself by getting offended at jeers when he plays lazily, skipping seven consecutive postgame pressers (yup), and complaining to the officials after every single no-call, it seems the entitled Randle thinks he is LeBron. He is not deserving of any entitled treatment because he is nowhere of that caliber.
This all just solidifies my theory about Julius not having the mentality to play in New York City as the alpha. It’s much easier to put together a great season with no fans in the seats. And last year, in the 2020-21 season, Randle and the Knicks were out there playing pickup basketball in an open gym. And as soon as the state started to let New Yorkers back into the zoo, his game started to fold, hence his sub-30% shooting in the playoffs. This year, with fans packing the Garden nearly every night, he’s playing even worse than he did in his first season as a Knick, which wasn’t great either.
The Knicks had 36 free-throws in this game to the Pelicans’ 22. I also don’t know what they keep complaining about when they get to the line just to miss half of them. A mentally tough team channels that energy out on the court against the opposition and turns it into a strong, resilient effort, and that was the exact opposite of what the Knicks did on Thursday, and it began with Randle. At the end of the first half, Kemba had just earned a technical foul, Randle salvaged it by hitting a shot at the buzzer, but then still loses his temper and get the Knicks their second tech. Horrendous and costly.
I will continue to hammer Thibodeau for not doing much about this either. Randle is allowed to do whatever he wants on the floor and play however many minutes he likes, despite all the errors he’s committing physically and mentally. If he is calling out a third-year player on his rookie contract in these press conferences he can certainly start putting a little heat on the veteran Randle’s name too. It’s a head coach’s job to hold everybody accountable, not to pick favorites.
Anyway, the Knicks took an ugly loss in this one. Of the 10 active Pelicans there were six scorers in double figures. Valančiūnas led three categories with 18 points, 10 rebounds, and a pair of blocks, while Hart (17 points), Ingram (15 points), and Graham (15 points) chipped in with solid efforts as well. The Pelicans also chimed in on the whole random-player-has-a-nice-night-against-the-Knicks party too. Jose Alvarado, who averages 3.1 points per game quadrupled that number with 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting. Great night at the Garden!
Fortunately the ‘Bockers bounced back with a sharp effort on the weekend. It was their first Sunday victory of the season. New York was much better this time around on their shooting, going 44% from three and 84% on free-throws. They had also won the rebounding game by a dozen. It was one of those rare occurrences where both RJ & Julius played strong basketball in the same game. The Knicks are 4-1 this season when each give 20 points or more.
First off, Randle played well so I have to give credit. He scored 24 points on 8-for-15 shooting, grabbing nine rebounds, and passing out five assists. He set the tone early with his scoring, hitting the jumper and also attacking the rim aggressively. It got a little rough for Randle again later in the night once the Clippers started sending doubles more consistently on Randle post-ups. Randle’s decision-making was often slow and led to some bad turnovers. He had seven turnovers in this game. His decision-making will always be key, but other than that it was a positive effort.
Barrett led in four categories yesterday with 28 points, 14 rebounds, six assists (tied), and a block (also tied). I think in a situation like this where the Knicks don’t have a legitimate No. 1 option, the third overall pick from the 2019 draft needs to be given the keys to the franchise at least until other stars come to this city (which who knows if/when). But I love the way RJ is playing lately. Yesterday he was driving, pushing the pace, and getting into the lanes in transition. His rebounding helped him get those easier fastbreak looks in this game so you also have to give credit to the Knicks’ defense.
Barrett continues to up the play of everybody else when he plays well. He clicked some more with Mitchell Robinson (eight points, eight rebounds) and Randle was playing good basketball off of RJ. In fact, in their last 10 games together, Barrett has had more field goal attempts on eight of those nights. In the other two games he had one with just as many attempts and one with just one less. So he’s getting not only more touches but being the aggressor with the ball in his hand which is a nice thing to see.
I think the important part for me is how Thibs and the Knicks adjust to this. Does Randle continue to buy into this and let RJ Barrett be the guy? Or will it hurt his ego? Will Thibs go back to giving Randle free rein the moment RJ slumps again? And he will, as a 21-year old. That’s the most important factor to look out for. It’s easy for Randle to play off of Barrett right now but what happens if he starts struggling for a stretch? Does Thibodeau stop running his offense through the guards?
Speaking of, equally as important is the Kemba Walker situation. It’s been a quiet but definitely telling trend this season that when Walker sits, Barrett plays better. They don’t co-exist. At least of late that’s definitely been the case. It’s difficult for Barrett to get on-ball reps when he shares the floor with Walker (not to mention Randle with Walker). When Walker is out there Barrett is used completely different by Thibs, more as a floor-spacer who just stands in the corner waiting for spot-ups, as opposed to being the playmaker.
Actually, per Basketball-Reference, the Knicks are outscored by 12.2 points per 100 possessions when RJ & Kemba share the floor. That is a worse differential than when RJ is paired with any other Knick. His best two-man tandem (among healthy players) is with Immanuel Quickley at +5.1 points per 100 possessions. And not to honk my own horn, but Quickley is a guy I have constantly been advocating for Thibs to start at point guard in games where Walker sits out.
I think at this point with Walker, between his very meager and sporadic production, and trying to figure out when he’s going to be healthy and when he isn’t, it’s best for the two parties to split. It’s better for Barrett, the Knicks, and Walker himself. He is only making $8 million so the option to waive him is a possibility and it shouldn’t be that difficult finding a trade partner to move him.
Also, Derrick Rose is nearing his return soon. He is far and away the best point guard on the roster who makes his teammates better. And going back to those numbers a couple of paragraphs ago, the Barrett-Rose tandem is actually RJ’s best on the entire team, as the Knicks are a +7.7 per 100 possessions when they share time. So it makes sense on paper and it makes sense with the ole eye test.
Also playing well yesterday, Fournier, Quickley, Robinson, and Cam Reddish for as long as he was out there. It sucks that Robinson was on his way to his fifth double-double in six games but then got the ankle sprain. You hate seeing that happen just when he was finding some consistency but hopefully it’s nothing but a tweak like he said on his social media page after.
Fournier scored 14 points on 4-for-8 three-point shooting and had four rebounds. His shots came at timely moments like at the top of the second half to spark a 7-0 run and towards the end of the fourth quarter to secure the Knick lead. He was also active on defense which was refreshing.
I thought Quickley’s six assists versus zero turnovers were most impressive as he continues to find open teammates. In three of his last four games he had had at least five assists. But also the scoring came in timely fashion too. Quickley came in late first quarter and in signature fashion produced in a hurry with six of his eight points coming in the opening term.
IQ is doing a nice job off the dribble, penetrating into the lane. Other than picking up his dribble a little early at times when driving, he is playing well in this playmaker role. I will continue to revert back to my comments about IQ & RJ needing to start together when Walker sits. It just makes sense.
There isn’t much to make of Reddish’s brief five minutes other than the fact that his only basket displayed what the Knicks will be getting from him, and also you hope that Thibs plays the kid. He scored in the second quarter after getting a rebound and going coast-to-coast to finish a reverse layup. His athleticism will push the pace for a team desperately in need of that. And he better play, which brings me to my next point before we wrap things up here.
We know Thibs likes his veterans and we know he likes having size out there for switching reasons defensively. He has already indicated he may not play Reddish as much as the fanbase wants too. Coach told the media on Sunday he likes the nine-man rotation. If Reddish does play, it’s either Obi Toppin or Quentin Grimes who will likely see a reduction in playing time.
Playing Cam over Obi makes more sense being that Toppin will eventually be moved and is one minutes -cut from being removed the rotation anyway, but Thibs is also very hesitant to go small. With Grimes, he loves what the kid has brought to the team (as do I). I and many will riot, though, if the newly acquired Cam Reddish isn’t a part of this rotation going forward in some way. I don’t think Reddish would love it either after forcing his way out of Atlanta for that reason.
All in all, the Knicks at least bounced back with a win and will now go into the new week with a tough task ahead. Tonight begins the start of a three-game road-trip and eight of ten away from the Garden. The level of competition will not be easy either. It starts with Clevland and only gets tougher. Go Knicks!