It gets harder and harder to focus game threads on the specific games to which they’re attached, I must confess. The Knicks are playing their enemy tonight and it could end up being a good, spirited game. I always feel like the Knicks can beat this Celtics team. Two of the three best players on the floor play for the Knicks. The rest of the best players on the floor from 4-10 are all Celtics, though, with the exception of Robin Lopez who deserves to be in that mix somewhere. The inevitable storyline before every game is: Which opposing guards, or guards, will light the Knicks up tonight?
The Knicks were 22-22 and we were all feeling fairly optimistic about the rest of the season. The last 18 games have been an unmitigated disaster and we’ve seen the firing of a coach and a lot of booing at the Garden as the new coach has failed at every aspect of his interim position. We had an unfortunate Jimmer circus. We have a new Melo circus. The owner’s name has suddenly found its way into the tabloids again. How long before Isia……I’m not going to even say it.
I think many of us have a strong suspicion about the Knicks’ biggest problem during the 18 game Armageddon. The guards can’t stop anyone, and they can’t make up for their defensive shortcomings with a balancing offensive contribution. They’re terrible at defense and mediocre, at best, on offense. I decided to go back and look at the disparity between our starting guards’ performances over 18 games as compared to the performances of the starting guards on the opposition. Before I share the numbers with you, I’ll note that the Knicks largely go with the Calderon/Afflalo starting backcourt, but Galloway either started in Calderon’s place, or played the bulk of the minutes at the point for a stretch of five games in the middle of the plummet. Calderon was hurt. Likewise, in a recent game the Knicks started Calderon and Galloway in the backcourt with Afflalo at the small forward when Melo sat. Mainly, this is all Calderon/Afflalo.
During the 18 game slide, the Knicks starting backcourt has put up:
.407 FG%, .917 FT% (on 2.7 combined attempts a game), 20 points, 7.7 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 2.6 TOs with 2.3 3PM per game. That’s the average numbers of BOTH guards. If you split the numbers in half to create an artificial “per player” set of averages it looks much, much worse, obviously. You can do that math quickly in your head, and chase it with a couple of aspirin.
During the 18 game slide, the opposition’s starting backcourt has put up:
.439 FG%, .818 FT% (on 8.6 combined attempts per game!), 35.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 11 assists, 2.5 steals, 3.5 TOs with 3.3 3PM per game.
The FTA differential is pretty staggering (the Knicks are -6). The point differential is also pretty staggering (-15). Melo leads the team in points, rebounds, and assists on the season (the only player in the league to do that), so it’s no surprise that the Knicks starting backcourt has been -5 in assists throughout this collapse. I don’t want to suggest the Knicks struggles can be so easily reduced to this one slice of information. There are a lot of problems, frankly, and while the guards are a big part of it, there are other things that can be said as well. That said, you can’t put yourself in a 15 point hole every night because your backcourt is bad on both ends. The hole gets bigger, in terms of overall contribution, if you acknowledge the impact the assist number may have. Although it’s imperfect to make assumptions about assists from the straight counting numbers, you’re talking about an additional number of points in the Knicks’ hole, depending on which non-starting guard makes the shots on the other end of the passes. It’s not a stretch to say that the Knicks starting backcourt is regularly -15 or more to their counterparts. That’s where all the fake comebacks are born.
The Celtics come in on a tear. I’m too lazy to go back and look at their winning streak, but they’ve been on a month+ tear in which they’ve established themselves as a team no one wants to play during the playoffs. The irony is, if you go back and look at the scores and the individual performances, the Boston club known for its tough defense has been on a winning tear by scoring a boat load of points. The Celtics have played good defense during their recent success, but they’ve also won and lost a lot of games in the 110s. The starting backcourt of Isaiah Thomas (note the extra ‘a’) and Avery Bradley have been combining for 40 points a game for a very long stretch now. What’s more, it isn’t all Isaiah Thomas going off for 30-35 and Avery Bradley tagging along with a smattering of points. Those two guys are hovering around 20 points a game each. Bradley has spent the last month dropping around 17 points on close to 50% shooting from the field. Thomas does what Thomas always does.
This is a nightmare scenario for the Knicks. During the 18 game slide, noting all the numbers I provided above, there were some Mudiay/Gary Harris nights and there were some Lowry/Derozan and Wall/Beal nights. The results were predictably different and the level of basketball bloodshed was proportionally gruesome. Thomas/Bradley seems, on paper, like some middle ground between the extremes, but the way they’ve been playing for more than a month promises to be more Wall/Beal than Mudiay/Harris. The Knicks might take solace in knowing that the last “down game” either of the Celtics’ guards had was a 6-point stinker by Bradley against New York. When you consider that the Boston guards have been stellar over an extended stretch and that the Knicks guards are typically -15 in points, tonight’s scenario starts from there. Add on top of it the notion that Jae Crowder does a respectable job on Melo and can score in his own right, you’re looking to Porzingis and Lopez to make up a ton of slack. That’s the game in a nutshell.
The good news is, there will be no Jimmer chanting in Boston tonight, and there’s no shot any of us hear thunderous booing of the Knicks unless it’s coming from our own living rooms. The team will undoubtedly benefit from being away from the toxicity of the Garden and the prying eyes of James Dolan, who usually appears like a vulture to pick at the carcass of another failed Knicks experiment. The Knicks, hopefully, can concentrate on basketball and maybe steal one against a good Celtics team. That would feel nice.