Sometimes this poor excuse for a basketball team gives you reasons to feel a little flame of pride inside of you (while still losing, of course). This game was one of those occasions, because we went toe-to-toe for the entire game (of course there were ebbs and flows, but you get my point) with one of the best teams in the League, and it didn’t look like it was just a case of poor shooting or whatever from the other team. We were in it, and while the game wasn’t particularly fun it had a lot of that scrappiness that Knicks fans usually appreciate, almost as if scrappy was our second nature by design. We started very well from the get going, and if not for a Smith Jr. third early foul that threw a wrench in our wheels maybe we could have done more from the beginning. At least, it was very easy on the eyes seeing a first quarter where we didn’t get helplessly pummeled from the first minutes.
There’s a chance that, if we weren’t tanking and we had a coaching staff that knew what to do during the timeouts they call (seriously, what the hell do they call a timeout for? I can only imagine Fizdale, Smart and Buechler wanting to stop the game so they can ask for help from the five poor sods that are playing in solving that wicked sudoku they’ve been bashing their head on since after lunch), we probably would have won this game. A little bit of defensive adjustments here, a little bit of playacting to free a shooter there, and this is probably a Knicks win. I don’t think we can complain, though, as this is clearly the right season not to give a damn about winning. What bugs me still, game after game, is how little our young guys show signs of real improvement. Case in point: Kevin Knox. The man was back at scoring 20, hitting 4 three pointers in the process, one of which was really down the line (it cut the Raptors’ lead to three with less than two minutes to go). As soon as he hit that three I just described, I instinctively thought “wow, such a good game from our rookie tonight”. Then I went and checked the boxscore in real time, and there it was: Knox had hit just one third of his shots to that point. My aching mind just chose not to remember a lot of those misses, as if I was the one responsible for the Knox pick after that legendary 3-on-3, but reality was staring me in the face: Knox doesn’t know how to play the game and my guess is that nobody is really pushing him to learn.
In the end, I think Fiz is like that substitute teacher we all had at one point in school: charismatic, looked the best ever for the first two weeks because he/she wasn’t grilling our asses on homework and tasks while giving us the chance to openly speak our mind in class, we couldn’t stop raving about him/her for finally “freeing us”. Then after a month you realized that substitute teacher couldn’t teach a thing and you were late a month in learning useful (or at the very least exam-necessary) notions, and you’d have to work your ass out double if you wanted to be par on the course. I commend the fact that, in the end, he’s playing a lot our youngsters. I can’t commend anything else about his work in the first 55 games of the season.
– Kadeem Allen (14 pts, 4 rebs, 6 ast, +5 +/-) was the main contributor to the fight our Knicks took to the Raptors late in the game. While not a real point guard by any means, he has the brains and the fire to man the position in a satisfying way for everyone. His shot is slow on the release, which means he can only shoot when he’s completely open, but he’s hitting his threes and he’s making the right passes, all the while being a good and active defender. In a very small sample size, he’s posting a 0.083 WS/48 (better than any other Knicks “point guard”), a 24.4 AST% (third after Smith Jr and Mudiay), and a cool .429 on threes. Now, these numbers are all due to go down, because Allen is at best a useful 12th man on an average NBA Team and he’s already 26, but there’s something to be said about overcoming some of your talent limitations to become a guy who can make a living in the NBA for four or five years. Most of all, the Kadeem Allen experience is staring in our face with a very judgmental scowl about what Frank Ntilikina projects to be. Allen is not a talented guy, but his instincts are good. It’s evident that he’s not thinking on the court, he just makes plays. A lot of people talk about prospects saying “yeah, but he’s only (insert young age here)!”, and while that’s fine, there are some aspects of basketball (or life, really) that don’t get better with age. You fill up, sure. You learn the pace of the game, sure. But I’m not convinced you can learn to act and react instead of thinking. The main difference between NBA basketball and Euro basketball is the fact that slow, groundbound players can still make a difference because the game is much slower and you have to exploit angles and rotations, not athleticism or superhuman feats like whatever it is that Harden, Antetokounmpo and the likes are doing on a nightly basis. There are things you are born with, and maybe you just have to untap. Allen, for all of his limitations, has them. I think Frank doesn’t. It’s apparent in the way they rebound. Allen throws himself at the ball. Frank is scared by the ball. That said, the thing I liked most from Allen tonight was the fact that he looked for the big man in the paint in the right spots, and he was the only one really able to find Mitch with good passes. If Mitch is to keep playing with the second unit, give me an Allen/Ntilikina type all the way and never bring Mudiay back from the injured list.
– Mitchell Robinson (15 pts, 7 rebs, 3 blks, +5 +/-) is again the brightest spot of this season. He can produce consistently, he looks like he has learned a bit not to foul too much (maybe someone teaches things after all between sudokus), and has already become a defensive force to be reckoned with. I’m not sure it’s gameplanning by opposing coaches, but you can visibly see guys like Kawhi stopping their ventures in the paint as soon as they see Mitch headed their way. Usually they find open guys on the perimeter, but that’s a story for another day. Today Mitch did a lot of damage on putbacks and a few assists from Allen and Vonleh (this one, with 7:20 to go in the fourth, was actually funny. Vonleh missed the pass by at least a foot, but Mitch was still able to jump very high, take the ball and score with an and-one. Coincidentally, his subsequent make from the charity stripe was the last time the Knicks led in the whole game). It’s quite surprising, given how weak his hands are on passes that are not lobs, that he has a really good touch around the rim. I really hope, and it’s definitely feasible, that he can work on his hands strength, because after that he will post double doubles like it’s just another day in the office. As of now he’s posting a rookie WS/48 good for 22nd ever in the history of the League (higher than Larry Bird). Also, if the season ended today, he’d be just the 24th qualifying rookie in NBA’s history to block at least 2 shots per game, and he’d be by far the one playing the fewest MPG in that group. A really historical rookie.
– Dennis Smith Jr (13 pts, 4 rebs, 6 ast, -6 +/-) takes the cake here, mostly for his abysmal shooting (a ghastly 4 for 17) and for the stupid quick three fouls in the first quarter. I never suspected I could be positively biased about a guy like DSJ, but even in a terrible game like his I find elements of hope. I watched a lot of Mudiay this season, and I never came away with the idea that the guy could be an NBA-caliber point guard. DSJ, for all of his warts, makes you come away with the feeling that at the very least he’s going to be a sought-after backup for middle-to-good teams, a bit like Schroder is doing in OKC. That said, I don’t understand why he runs so little the pick and roll with Mitch (a bit better with DeAndre). They don’t play together much, but he’s the ideal partner to do it, simply because he overpowers guys around the rim with his sheer jumping ability. Until I see at least a completed connection every game between DSJ and Mitch, I’ll be harsh on him. His defense was again very blah, but it looked a bit better than last game. In a weird experiment, he played with Allen as the shooting guard and Trier as the small forward. It didn’t go that well. Simply put, DSJ needs shooters around him to open his game. That’s why I don’t understand at all why we’re putting Kornet on the shelf.
– Kevin Knox (20 pts, 4 rebs, 2 ast, -10 +/-) is playing like the guy we just shipped away, THJ. He’s not a bad shooter from three, but everything else is all over the place, especially his drives to the rim. There’s not much to be said about him today, apart from the fact that he took 21 shots to get to 20 points and that was maybe a little better on defense, while still being totally lost on rotations (I know, I know, a leit-motiv for the season if there ever was one). Again: nothing on him, but I hope I don’t see him growing up as second year player in NY, if only because it would certainly deflate his value.
– DeAndre Jordan came to play tonight, another double double but this time he was very spicy. I seem to remember he was better at blocking shots, but I won’t complain at performances like this one. 10 points, 18 boards, 3 assists in 27 good minutes.
– Mario started in place of Vonleh, and was a mixed bag of mediocre. I liked his boards and nothing else. It’s funny that when we need to start a new PF, nobody thinks about Kornet, who’s certainly slow but much more useful than Mario or Lance. Fizdale’s beliefs are really weird sometimes.
– Vonleh was a bit more like himself this time (9 points, 5 boards, +2 plus/minus). I still don’t understand why he’s still here and didn’t get traded.
– Trier is not the same since the trade. Not a bad game, just a mediocre one. And, as I said, he’s not getting to the line anymore (not his fault, there are few shooters in this roster and the one we have in the front court – Kornet – is not playing).
– Is there a chance that Dotson’s playing worse because he knows there is no competition for his starting spot? He looks like he has no fire this year.
And that’s all! I won’t be recapping the Cleveland game because I’m about to undergo Femto-Lasik surgery on Thursday to correct my short-sightedness. Maybe it will also improve my eye-test :)