By John Schmeelk
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Wednesday night’s loss to the Wizards was one of the most frustrating games of the year if you’re a Knicks fan trying to see a path forward for the franchise. It should also be a signal to the front office that things need to seriously change at the All-Star break so the remainder of the season has some meaning other than pingpong balls.
The obvious complaint about Wednesday’s game was the blown lead, even if it was utterly predictable. After leading by 27 points with 2:56 remaining in the second quarter, the Knicks were outscored by 32 points in the final 26:56 to lose by five. The speed at which the team lost the lead and how the head coach didn’t do anything significant to stop it is most disconcerting.
The Knicks were up by 22 at halftime, but after only 6:24 had gone by in the second half, the lead had been cut to six. Coach Jeff Hornacek used two timeouts, but somehow he didn’t make any substitutions during that stretch despite the fact that Washington scored on every single possession except one. Jarrett Jack, Courtney Lee, Tim Hardaway Jr., Michael Beasley and Enes Kanter all stayed on the floor despite the fact that Lee is the only plus defender in the group.
That’s the most frustrating part of the game against the Wizards: Hornacek’s substitution patterns. After Kristaps Porzingis’ season-ending knee injury last week, it seemed like Hornacek had finally gotten the message that it was time to play the younger players. Point guards Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay were playing more than Jack, and it looked like you might get some development at the end of the season. That ceased Wednesday night.
Look at this minute distribution:
• Jack: 27:32
• Ntilikina: 10:58
• Mudiay: 20:28
• Trey Burke: 0
It had nothing to do with performance, either. Ntilikina played just as well, if not better than Jack, with five points on 2-of-2 shooting and two steals. (Jack was 1-of-5 for five points.) Ntilikina also outplayed Mudiay, who shot 3-of-9, was a disaster on defense and turned the ball over four times.
Performance should have nothing to do with Ntilikina’s minutes at this point in the season anyway. The eighth overall pick in last year’s draft, he needs to play through mistakes and learn. He also needs to play with the ball in his hands to work on his point guard skills.
The reasoning behind Hornacek’s decisions are perhaps the most discouraging and are a cause for alarm. It is obvious he is still trying to desperately to win games (maybe to save his job) at the detriment of player development, but that is not the worst of it.
Hornacek actually believes it will help his team win if Beasley plays 40 minutes on a night he shoots 8-of-24. He actually thinks that the best lineup to help him win games includes three of the team’s worst defenders all playing at the same time: Jack, Kanter and Beasley. Hornacek bemoaned the lack of toughness and defense after the game, yet plays guys major minutes who don’t do those things well.
Ironically, Hornacek’s stubbornness in playing his veterans major minutes despite their incompatibility will help the team lose more games and improve their chances in the lottery at the end of the year. But the Knicks’ front office needs to take a long, hard look at their head coach’s thought process in the games that come after the All-Star break. There needs to be a long conversation this weekend to figure out exactly what he is doing and why.
The Knicks are going to lose a lot of their remaining 23 games after the All-Star break, but those losses don’t have to be valueless. You can learn about Ntilikina, Mudiay, Burke and Damyean Dotson. Play them. They will get better. You will learn what you have in them. I’m tired of writing it for the 1,000th time in the last month, but Hornacek still doesn’t get it. The Knicks already know what they have in their veterans, and it isn’t good.
Hardaway managed to encapsulate his career well in the Wizards game. He was unconscious in the first half, shooting 12-of-14, including 5-of-6 from 3-point range, scoring 32 points. He was the reason the team had a 27-point lead. In the second half, after the Wizards turned up the defensive heat, he shot 2-of-10 and scored just five points. He was a team worst minus-26 in the final two quarters. Inconsistency still plagues him, not just game to game, but also within games themselves.
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