By John Schmeelk
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With a new roster and little time in the preseason to acclimate and practice due to injuries and off-the-court issues, Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek has struggled to find a consistent rotation of players off the bench so far this season. These things take time, but Wednesday night might have given him a glimpse of something that can work moving forward.
For much of the fourth quarter, the Knicks went with a Euro lineup featuring Kristaps Porzingis, Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Willy Hernangomez and Sasha Vujacic, as well as Brandon Jennings. Courtney Lee and Carmelo Anthony were mixed in late in the period, but it was those five who extended the Knicks’ lead and helped secure the 110-96 win. In just under seven minutes on the floor together, those five outscored the Nets by 12 points in the fourth quarter and shot 58 percent from the field.
The team went to a high pick-and-roll spread offense, with either Porzingis or Hernangomez screening for Jennings at the top. Porzingis hit consecutive open 3’s from the top of the key off of Nets traps. Both KP and Hernangomez caught great passes from Jennings on cuts to the rim for dunks and layups. Jennings had six assists in the fourth quarter alone.
Even though that group does not feature good defensive personnel, they held the Nets to eight points on just 21 percent shooting, and 20 percent from 3-point land. Brandon Jennings was hounding the ball. Kristaps Porzingis was protecting the rim. Most important, everyone on the court was following the same game plan and working hard, which can make even less physically gifted defenders look like a good group. The Nets did miss some open looks, but the group was at least competent.
That’s why when Hornacek’s Knicks take the floor Friday against the Celtics, he needs to make sure both Hernangomez and Kuzminskas are in his bench rotation. Both played well with Jennings, and actually helped provided some punch for a backup unit that has had all sorts of trouble scoring this season. There’s no need to slide Vujacic ahead of Justin Holiday, since Holiday is a better wing defender and can do the same things Vujacic does offensively.
If they continue to play Lance Thomas, it gives the Knicks 10 players in their rotation. It means they will play relatively small off the bench, and can mix in Thomas, Anthony and Kuzminskas at the four with some Porzingis at the five if necessary. Kyle O’Quinn has had his moments this season, but whenever he gets the ball, the game seems to slow to a snail’s pace. If Hornacek wants to play faster and really spread the floor, the Euro-group is the way to go.
Hornacek is still figuring out his team, and perhaps that fourth quarter against the Nets will be of help to guide his rotation decisions moving forward.
- The defense showed very little improvement last night until the second half. The Nets shot 55 percent in the first half and hit six 3’s while scoring 55 points. The Knicks clamped down in the third quarter, holding the Nets to 16 percent shooting and just 16 points. Something was said at halftime because the effort on that end was much stronger in the second half.
- Anthony caught fire in the third quarter, and his 14 points in the third are what kept the Knicks in the game until their Euro-unit took command in the fourth quarter.
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