By John Schmeelk
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Knicks fans are understandably upset after their team blew a 23-point, third-quarter lead in Monday night’s 104-101 loss to the Cavaliers. But everything that happened in the game will serve as a valuable learning experience for a young roster. It also showed coach Jeff Hornacek certain things he has to watch for as this season progresses.
1. Kristaps Porzingis Won’t Always Be Great
Along with his poor game against the Celtics very early in the season, this was a truly bad game for Porzingis. He got into foul trouble early, shot just 7-of-21, missed big free throws at the end of the game and had defensive lapses in the final minutes, allowing Channing Frye to hit an open 3-pointer and Dwyane Wade to grab a key offensive rebound.
These games are going to happen, and the Knicks need to learn to survive when they do. They did well in the first half but struggled late when they continued to try to continually isolate Porzingis in the post when the Cavs were either double-teaming him or LeBron James was defending him extremely well. They rarely put him in motion off the ball to get him easy looks or used him in screen-and-roll situations. Those are adjustments the Knicks will have to learn to make.
2. A Team Bonding Experience
What happened in the first half of the game between James, Frank Ntilikina and Enes Kanter was less a learning experience and more a sign at how close this group is. James tried to intimidate Ntilikina by bodying him up after a missed basket. The 19-year-old rookie simply pushed James out of the way before Kanter got in the four-time MVP’s face.
After the team had strong words defending Ntilikina over the weekend, they backed it up with action on the court. It’s a good sign that this team is really playing for each other and has one another’s backs. They seem to genuinely like each other.
3. Don’t Take The Foot Off the Pedal
After playing with great enthusiasm and focus for the better part of three quarters, the Knicks came out with notably less energy once they extended their lead to 20 points toward the end of the third quarter. New York’s defense lagged, and the Cavs got hot from 3-point range. It should be a lesson that a 20-point lead, even early in the fourth quarter, is not safe in an NBA game.
4. Ntilikina Is the Team’s Best Point Guard
Ntilikina is far from perfect. He has to take open shots when they are given to him, and he needs to shoot at a higher percentage. With that said, he has shown maturity, smarts and toughness. He is unselfish and a good passer. His one elite skill is defense. His six steals Monday night vaulted him into third place in steals per game in the NBA despite playing very limited minutes.
Jarret Jack’s play has tailed off with more exposure, and swapping their roles would add some much-needed defense to the starting five and some scoring punch to the bench unit. It will also be easier for Hornacek to make sure Ntilikina is rested and able to play late into the fourth quarters.
Dennis Smith Jr.? Frank has been just fine.
5. Watch Your Lineups
This one is for Hornacek, who eventually made the right move but waited too long. When the Cavs made their comeback in the fourth quarter, they were playing with a very small lineup featuring Frye, James, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver and Dwyane Wade.
The Knicks led by 14 with 7:50 to play and had both Kanter and Porzingis on the floor. Over the next 4½ minutes the Cavs outscored the Knicks 21-9. New York gave up five 3-pointers during that stretch when it played big against a small lineup. It was then that Hornacek took out Kanter and went with Lance Thomas at power forward and Porzingis at center. If that move had been made earlier, it could have saved the game.
It wasn’t Kanter’s fault the Knicks lost, but the team would have been better positioned with different types of players on the court. Thomas is their best defender against James, but he was on the bench for far too long. Courtney Lee had to guard James instead, leaving Tim Hardaway Jr. on the Cavs’ hot shooters. Kanter wouldn’t have had to guard a perimeter player.
Hornack used Porzingis at center earlier this year in a similar situation but was hesitant to do so Monday night, and it hurt the team. The Knicks have been best this year in fourth quarters with Porzingis, Ntilikina and Lance Thomas on the floor together, but we didn’t see nearly enough of that Monday night. The Cavs scored 43 fourth-quarter points, partly because New York’s best defenders weren’t on the floor together.
I understand why the Knicks cut Mindaugus Kuzminskas, but I honestly believe he is a better player than both Ramon Sessions and Michael Beasley. Beasley doesn’t fit the unselfish/defensive-minded composition the front office is going for. Keeping Sessions because of Jarrett Jack’s injury history makes sense, but it does not bode well for Ron Baker that the Knicks can’t trust him to be their third point guard.
The Knicks were smart to leave Joakim Noah inactive Monday night. The Knicks’ big-man rotation is already overcrowded, and it’s working well. No reason to upset the apple cart unless things go south.
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