There is very little argument that the 2020-2021 version of the New York Knicks is far better than last year’s team. First year coach Tom Thibodeau has the Knicks playing aggressive defense and with a grittiness that hasn’t been seen in years. Friday night’s loss to the Oklahoma Thunder at Madison Square Garden came as surprise to Knicks fans. Most believed that a fourth straight was a certainty. The win by the Thunder, snapping a three-game winning streak and coming after a 3-1 road trip should serve as a reality check. Even though the Knicks are 5-4, there are still going to be peaks and valleys during the season.
“We’re a work in progress. We’re striving to be a 48-minute team. If we don’t play hard and with great intensity and share the ball and play unselfishly, it’s going to be tough,” Thibodeau said. “I like the resiliency of the team. We gotta have that fight every night. Some nights we may fall short, but we gotta learn from it and get ready for the next day.”
Sure fans had every right to think the contest against Oklahoma City was winnable. The Thunder came into “The Garden” with a record of 3-4. Mark Daigneault’s club is led by youngsters Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo and Darius Bazley. Superstars Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Paul George are long gone. This is a team in full rebuild mode. The Knicks on the other hand were coming off wins over playoff teams Milwaukee, Indiana, Utah, and much improved Atlanta.
“We started off the game where we had the lead but we didn’t play with the urgency and the toughness that you need to play with when you do get a lead,” Thibodeau said.
“The biggest thing for us is just effort,” guard Austin Rivers said. “We have to outwork teams for us to win games. Every game, we gotta come in, give high energy.”
However, to think that this New York team has reached their peak and that any contest should be labeled as a game “they should win” at this point is a mistake. Every game still provides a challenge, regardless of the opponent. The Knicks still have several glaring weaknesses. Thibodeau has been able to coach around his team’s issues because of solid game planning and the effort of his players. Julius Randle putting the team on his back and competing at an all-star level has also been a factor in the Knicks’ success. When he is not on the floor, as was the case against on Friday night because of foul issues, the Knicks struggle.
Even though New York led the NBA in three-point shooting percentage briefly to begin the season, that appears to have been a bit of fool’s gold. The Knicks are currently shooting just 36.8% from behind the arc, placing them 13th in the league. They are 19th in field goal percentage at 45.1% and only 28th in points per game at 103. Alec Burks is the top three-point shooter on the team at 66.7%. His sample size is small as he has only played in three games due to injury. Starters Elfrid Payton (35%), RJ Barrett (21.4%) and Reggie Bullock (31.8%) are all struggling from long distance. If the Knicks are going to take the next step they must find some more consistent shooting.
Free throw shooting also continues to be problematic. To call it the “charity stripe” would be an exageration. The Knicks shoot just 73.8% from the line. That places them a disastrous 28th overall. Looking at the first unit, Randle leads the way at 75.4%. Payton (66.7%), Barrett (71.7%) Bullock (57.1%) and Mitchell Robinson (45.5%) all need to improve for New York to compete.
Shooting woes were not the only reason the Knicks fell to the Thunder. Getting away from the style of play that has garnered the team early season success also contributed to the setback.
“Then our offense just [has to] get back to driving and kicking, driving and kicking, moving the ball. If you don’t have it, make the next pass. Next man up-type mentality. If we play that way, then we’re pretty hard to beat,” Rivers concluded.
New York will get a shot at redemption tonight at home againt the Denver Nuggets. Denver is a quality team despite only coming in with a 4-5 record. Nuggets center Nikola Jokic averages a double-double on the season at 24.7 points and 11.3 rebound per game. Jamal Murray averages 21 points a night.
“Just come back with an edge,” Randle said. “The biggest reason we won games is because we fought, we competed and we played hard and played for each other and we played with an edge. Just got to get back to that on Sunday.”
Tip off tonight is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Madison Square Garden.
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)