Key To Knicks' Fourth-Quarter Success So Far Has Been Identifying The Right Guys To Play On Defensive End

By John Schmeelk
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As Knicks fans watch their team continue to win games, they are learning more and more about what this group of players can do.

In the same way, Jeff Hornacek is figuring out the best way to utilize his guys to get the most out of his roster. During this winning streak he seems to have figured out a rotation that should be able to sustain itself for the rest of the season.

Early on, Hornacek was playing 11 or 12 players every game, trying to find groups that worked well together on the floor. He tried to find roles for guys like Ron Baker, Michael Beasley, and even tried to play three pint guards and three centers in some games. It didn’t work. Yet, Hornacek has been relentless and now, it seems, he has found a formula that works.

It has been all about defense and ball movement.

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Kyle O'Quinn

The Knicks’ Kyle O’Quinn, center, dunks against the Charlotte Hornets during the second half at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 7, 2017. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

The rotation has been shortened. Over the last six quarters, Hornacek has only played nine players. Beasley doesn’t seem to be part of the equation, which, if true, is a smart move by Hornacek. While he can score, Beasley does it in isolation situations that slow down the flow of the offense. He doesn’t defend at all, or promote ball movement. He can be used in desperate situations when the team needs an offensive spark, but otherwise he doesn’t fit into the formula that has made the team successful over the last three games.

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He is splitting the backcourt minutes between four players: Jarrett Jack, Frank Ntilikina, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Courtney Lee. That’s a pretty good quartet. Forward minutes have been going to Kristaps Porzingis, and either Lee or Hardaway, with Doug McDermott and Lance Thomas coming off the bench. Center minutes have been split between Enes Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn. There are both offensive and defensive players mixed in, which is giving the team a nice balance.

I criticized the inclusion of O’Quinn and McDermott in the team’s rotation at the start of the season, but they’ve proven worthy of the minutes they’ve earned in practice. McDermott moves well off the ball, hits the open 3-pointer, and has not been a huge minus on defense. O’Quinn does a little bit of everything and fills up the stat sheet with points, rebounds, blocks, and assists. Both have been valuable during this hot streak.

Hornacek needs to be given credit for his fourth-quarter lineups over last two games. The Knicks outscored the Pacers and Hornets by 35 points in the final 12 minutes on Sunday and Tuesday, respectively. The Knicks shot well in both quarters, but the real story was their defense. The Knicks held the two opponents to a combined 36 points on under 33 percent from the floor.

That happened because of who Hornacek decided to play. Thomas and Ntilikina have played all but one second of the last two fourth quarters. They are probably the two best defensive players on the roster and it has showed. Throw in Porzingis, who only sat for six and a half minutes in the prior two fourth quarters, and his rim protection and you have a lineup that’s going to be difficult to score against. The length of Porzingis and Ntilikina, along with Thomas’ hustle and veteran smarts, translates into one of the best defensive trios the Knicks have had in years.

The Knicks’ ability on that end of the floor gives Hornacek flexibility to play whomever he wants at the other spots. On Tuesday night, he used McDermott, Hardaway and Lee for the wing minutes. O’Quinn and Kanter played center, as did Porzingis, who Hornacek thought (correctly) would have an advantage over Dwight Howard from the perimeter. Hornacek would be wise to keep Ntilikina, Thomas and (of course) Porzingis regular members of his fourth-quarter lineups. They help get the necessary stops to give the Knicks a chance to cut into deficits or maintain their leads. He can go to the hot hand, whomever they are on any given night.

There are still other things Hornacek can do to help matters earlier in the game. Too often he has his second unit out there without Porzingis, Kanter, or Hardaway, which leaves the Knicks without a scoring threat for a long stretch in the second quarter. Matching O’Quinn with Porzingis more, and putting Kanter with the second unit might help that. It is also only a matter of time before Ntilikina becomes a starter and Jarret Jack joins the second unit.

I would expect the rotation to expand a bit on Wednesday with the team playing the Orlando Magic in the second night of a back to back. Beasley will probably play a bit, as might Willy Hernangomez. That’s fine. But on a normal night, Hornacek has found his nine guys and he needs to stick with them.

For everything Knicks, Giants, and the world of sports, follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk