Can we just start another Triangle vs. pace-and-space argument with the obvious: It doesn’t matter what offense the Knicks run when their defense is this bad.
New York has the fifth worst defensive rating in the NBA this season, and it’s been slightly worse since the All-Star break. The Knicks as a team don’t show much effort on that end of the court, they are the worst defensive rebounding team in the NBA, and they are fourth worst at creating turnovers. If you don’t get stops and just try to outscore teams, even if your offense is good you don’t win consistently.
Whew. Okay. All that said, the Knicks offense isn’t that good, it’s been pedestrian most of the season. There is talent there — Carmelo Anthony can still get buckets, Kristaps Porzingis is a rising star and scoring machine, Derrick Rose has his moments, and there are role players who can knock down shots. Part of the problem has been the push-and-pull between Phil Jackson (with friend Kurt Rambis as an assistant coach) pushing for the triangle, vs. coach Jeff Hornacek wanting to run a more modern offense. Right now the pendulum has swung back toward the triangle, with that set to be the offense next season.
“Early in the season, we were winning games, went on a little winning streak we had. We were playing a certain way. We went away from that, started playing another way. Everybody was trying to figure out: Should we go back to the way we were playing, or try to do something different?…
“I thought earlier we were playing faster and more free-flow throughout the course of the game,’’ Anthony said. “We kind of slowed down, started settling it down. Not as fast. The pace slowed down for us — something we had to make an adjustment on the fly with limited practice time, in the course of a game. Once you get into the season, it’s hard to readjust a whole system.”
The NCAA Tournament gets back underway Thursday, but the NBA ball just keeps rolling along. Here are the big takeaways from Wednesday.
1) LeBron James says Cavaliers lack toughness. Is there trouble or are they just bored with the regular season? Here is the unquestioned fact: The Denver Nuggets trounced the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday night, 126-113. There are a number of factors in this, starting with Denver is playing better than people think — the Nuggets are the fifth best team in the NBA since the All-Star break, outscoring teams by 5.6 points per 100 possessions. Jamal Murray is emerging as the ball handling guard of the future for this team, Gary Harris is a sniper, and they have solid veterans such as Jameer Nelson and Wilson Chandler. But at the heart of it all is Nikola Jokic, who is for real. Watch what he does to LeBron James here.
“It ain’t about a group. It’s about individuals,” James said… “We’ve got to be more, just do more. It ain’t about no group. You can’t preach toughness. You’ve got to have it.”
“Personally? I had opportunities where I could have been better,” James said before firing back with a rebuttal. “Um, one thing about it: I always bring toughness to the game. I know that. That’s for sure.”
LeBron is clearly challenging his team to get serious on both ends and to start getting in playoff mode.
To me, the Cavaliers look bored. As in the real season starts in a couple of weeks with the playoffs, and they feel they can flip the switch then, but right now the regular season feels like a tedious slog. That’s what it looked like in Denver. Before that, I watched the Cavaliers in person against the Lakers Sunday, and LeBron James played well enough all game, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were getting theirs, but the team lacked any urgency, and it showed on defense. The tanking Lakers hung around. Then, LeBron seemed to say “screw this” and for a five-minute span took charge of the game, looking every bit the best player on the planet, the rest of the Cavaliers quickly fell in line, Cleveland took control of the game, and they coasted from there to the win.
That was against the Lakers, the worst team in the NBA since the All-Star break and a team playing youth everywhere. Denver is legit right now, they are playing well, and the Cavs couldn’t just flip the switch on Wednesday. Jokic and Mason Plumlee led the way as the Nuggets scored 70 points in the paint.
It’s still hard to picture any team in the East beating Cleveland. However, they have not spent the regular season building good habits to fall back on when the eventual challenge comes in the playoffs. There’s been a lot of comparisons to the 2000-01 Lakers, a defending championship team that battled injuries and didn’t impress in the regular season, looked bored on defense, then flipped the switch in the playoffs and went 16-1 on the way to the title. Maybe. But teams that flip the switch are the exception, not the rule.
The bored Cavaliers are playing a dangerous game, but will it haunt them before June? Can any team in the East make them pay?
2) The Knicks have no answer for Rudy Gobert, Jazz thump Knicks. Rudy Gobert is a defensive powerhouse of a big man, the best rim protector in the game and a man on his way to winning Defensive Player of the Year. That was a problem for the Knicks on Wednesday night. A bigger problem — they couldn’t stop him on offense around the rim. Gobert at 35 points on 13-of-14 shooting, with 11 offensive rebounds. The Knicks went small for stretches (with Kristaps Porzingis, but he isn’t strong enough to handle Gobert), other times Willy Hernangomez tried but could not slow Gobert, and the French big man feasted. Check out Gobert’s shot chart.
Or, just watch what he did to the Knicks.
The Knicks started hot in this game behind vintage Derrick Rose for a quarter, but they can’t sustain that kind of play against a quality team. Utah is a quality team (I think they can beat the Clippers in the first round), and the foundation of that is in the middle.
3) Russell Westbrook notches 35th triple-double with perfect shooting, Thunder attack the rim and get the win. Let us formally acknowledge that Russell Westbrook is very, very good at basketball. He had 18 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds, and was a perfect 6-of-6 from the field. That would be the first perfect shooting triple-double in NBA history. How’s that for adding to the MVP resume.
As for the game, the Thunder attacked the paint and the Sixers had no answers. OKC won 122–97, scoring 76 points while knocking down just four 3-pointers.
Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek: Triangle could attract free agents
New York Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek believes the team’s triangle offense can be a potential draw for free agents this summer.
“There might be players that think [the triangle offense is a deterrent], but there are also probably players out there that say ‘Oh man, I’d like to run something like that,'” Hornacek said Wednesday. “There are guys that may not necessarily like to run around and in [screen] staggers and all that stuff. It’s still an offense where guys, if they’re knowledgeable about the game, should like.”
“It’s a strategy that, almost every time down the court if you’re a player, you’re watching things develop. When you look at it that way, it’s actually fun to run,” he said.
Speaking of Jackson, did Hornacek have a problem with the president instructing the team’s guards on the triangle on the practice court? Hornacek, via Begley:
“No. We talk about stuff all the time,” Hornacek said of Jackson. “So when he comes out and demonstrates for the guys, he’s so used to being out on the court it’s probably fun for him to do. And the guys get another look at it from a guy who has run it for years and years, so it’s good.”
Everything Hornacek said here, on the triangle’s appeal and Jackson’s involvement, can be seen through the same lens: Hornacek works for Jackson and wants to keep his job. Will he? It’s no guarantee, but Hornacek gives himself the best shot by repeatedly publicly backing his boss.
At least Hornacek gets to speak regularly with Jackson. Not everyone gets that opportunity.
Kristaps Porzingis: Knicks confused ‘from top to bottom’
“We’ve been switching things up because at any point of this season, we never played like we wanted to,” Porzingis said after fouling out with 19 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. “It was like, ‘Maybe this will work. Maybe this will work.’ So we’re kind of looking for stuff.
“Coaches, they obviously try to do the best job they can and give us as much as they can so we have the information. But we never really got it all together and were able to execute the way we should have. It’s been a lot of confusion.”
Porzingis said the confusion is “from top to bottom. A lot of stuff that’s not clear. So it’s hard to play like that.”
“The situation is tough,” Porzingis said. “We’re not doing the right things. We’re just not working together right now. We need to find solutions. Whatever 16, 15 games we have left, we have to give everything we have so we can finish the season not regretting anything.”
There’s confusion when a coach who has never coached the triangle is suddenly emphasizing the triangle with a roster that doesn’t fit the triangle? What a shocking development.
Maybe the Knicks would be in better shape if they’d gone with the triangle from the beginning, as Porzingis wanted. But, at this point, it just seems there’s no coherent plan.
Bismack Biyombo spins Kristaps Porzingis with nasty dunk (video)