The Extra Pass: Why the Knicks are starved offensively; plus Monday’s recaps

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As the New York Knicks were serenaded with a mix of boos and chants of “Brooklyn! Brooklyn!” at Madison Square Garden during an embarrassing 23 point home loss to the Nets, it felt like rock bottom. Again. For about the seventh time.

That’s the thing about the Knicks this season. When it looks like it can’t get worse, it often does.

But then there are the occasional stretches where the Knicks temporarily flirt with competency, which is all a team really has to do in the Eastern Conference to be in the playoff picture. For as lifeless and dysfunctional as the Knicks often appear to be, there’s a lot of bad basketball left to be played, and a lot of chances to figure a few things out.

Obviously, it’s not going to be easy to diagnose and cure the ails of the 19th ranked offense and 25th ranked defense in efficiency. You already know about the personnel issues: J.R. Smith is no longer playing for a contract or for anything other than his own amusement, Beno Udrih wants out, Iman Shumpert is thrown in a trade rumor or under the bus every other day, and all this happens around the elephant in the room that is Carmelo Anthony’s impending free agency.

There are coaching issues, too. When Tyson Chandler says, “I think we came to play, they just outschemed us” after a 23-point loss, that’s pointing a giant finger (you choose which one) at the coaching staff. Honestly, it’s a bit deserved — Mike Woodson’s adjustments are about as non-existent as the amount of accountability he demands from his chosen players.

But even when you factor in the impact of those things (and organizational dysfunction!), the Knicks’ primary flaw is their failed execution of the league’s most commonly utilized play: the pick-and-roll.

It’s a little crazy, if only because the Knicks were so explosive offensively last year because of that very play. Just look at the data broken down via mysynergysports.com:

2012-13:

Pick-and-roll ballhandlers: 15.2% of the offense, .84 points per play, ranked 3rd in the league.

Pick-and-roll roll men: 6.3% of the offense, 1.18 points per play, ranked 1st in the league.

Now compare those numbers to this year, and understand why an offense ranked 3rd in efficiency last year has taken such a steep dive this season.

2013-14:

Pick-and-roll ballhandlers: 12.8% of the offense, .71 points per play, ranked 26th in the league.

Pick-and-roll roll men: 6.8% of the offense, 1.01 points per play, ranked 14th in the league.

The eye test supports what the numbers show. Raymond Felton just isn’t turning the corner and getting to the basket like he was last year. Defenses are happily goading him into shooting jumpers, as he’s shooting below 40 percent from the field and 28.7% from three. He’s simply not a threat anymore, and there’s no reason to ever go over the top of a screen or extend to far out as a big man when he has the ball.

It certainly doesn’t help that Andrea Bargnani has been involved in most of the pick-and-roll action for the Knicks this season due to Chandler’s missed time. Bargnani is solely a pop man, which doesn’t gut or move the defense nearly as well as a hard dive to the rim from Chandler typically does. It’s a different element to the Knicks offense, but it’s supposed to be the changeup, not the fastball.

Since teams no longer have to collapse on Felton or Smith’s forays to the paint or Chandler’s dives to the rim with the same frequency as last year, good looks out of the pick-and-roll aren’t being created with any consistency.

That’s a big reason why the Knicks are 17th in the league in three-point percentage this year compared to 5th last year. The difference between a clean look and a contested one in the NBA is about a half of a second, and defenders simply don’t have to cheat towards the paint nearly as much as they once did.

When an offense loses its bread and butter, it starves. The Knicks still have time to turn it around, but it’s hard to imagine that will happen without the aid of penetration in the pick-and-roll. Who they’ll find that from at this stage is anyone’s guess.

D.J. Foster

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Mavericks 102, Cavaliers 97: This was a game that Dallas led by as many as 24 points, but the Cavaliers managed to come all the way back to have a chance to tie with 2.8 seconds remaining. But Mike Brown isn’t exactly known for his ability to draw up anything remotely competent offensively, and the Cavs couldn’t even inbound the ball to get the tying shot off, and were whistled for the rare five-second call that sealed it. Kyrie Irving finished with 26 points (albeit on 27 shots), and Anderson Varejao ended up with a game-high 21 rebounds in the losing effort. Monta Ellis had nine points in the final period for Dallas, but missed two critical free throws that gave Cleveland the final opportunity to tie, which was ultimately squandered. —Brett Pollakoff

Bobcats 100, Raptors 95: This score would have been a bit of a surprise anyway, considering that the Raptors had largely been playing much better and the Bobcats, even with the win, are still seven games under .500 on the season. But it’s even more of a shock considering that Toronto no-showed for the early part of this one, and trailed by as many as 30 before staging a furious comeback that fell just short. Kyle Lowry was the one who sparked the Raptors, scoring 14 fourth quarter points and having a chance to tie it at the free throw line with under 25 seconds remaining. He missed the chance to complete the three-point play, however, and the Bobcats finished the game by hitting seven free throws to seal it. Ramon Sessions finished with 23 points on just 10 shots for Charlotte, and Al Jefferson had a monster game with 22 points, 19 rebounds, seven assists and two blocked shots. —BP

Clippers 112, Pistons 103: DeAndre Jordan dunked four times in the game’s opening minutes, kick-starting a riveting matchup – between Jordan and Blake Griffin for who could dunk most. Jordan held onto his early lead, besting Griffin seven to five. Los Angeles led by 20 before the Pistons made a late comeback, but this one was all about the Clippers. Whether it was Griffin’s 25 points, Jordan’s 21 rebounds or Jamal Crawford’s 26 points on 13 shots off the bench, Los Angeles had all sorts of contributions that masked the absence of Chris Paul. — Dan Feldman

Wizards 107, 76ers 99: This wasn’t Washington’s most-polished performance, but its centers – Marcin Gortat (19 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks) and Kevin Seraphin (16 points, seven rebounds and a block) – dominated in a combined 46 minutes. Sometimes, out-muscling an opponent is enough. Both teams will probably take this result. The Wizards boost their playoff position, and Philadelphia continues tanking. Plus, Michael Carter-Williams (31 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals) bolstered his Rookie of the Year case. — DF

Nets 103, Knicks 80: The Nets improved to 7-1 in 2014 with an easy win over a Knicks team that didn’t look like it belonged on the same court for much of the afternoon. It was essentially over at halftime, when Joe Johnson had already scored 20 points and Brooklyn showcased what has become its signature  during this recent successful stretch — exceptional ball movement and solid team defense. It could have been a bigger margin, too, considering the Nets were just 3-of-10 shooting corner threes, and almost all of the attempts were wide-open looks. Deron Williams returned after a five-game injury-forced absence, and finished with 13 points on 4-of-10 shooting, to go along with three assists in 27 minutes of action off the bench. Williams said afterward that the reserve role was his idea, and that he didn’t want to disrupt the team’s solid starting lineup. —BP

Pelicans 95, Grizzlies 92: Anthony Davis had 27 points, 10 rebounds, four steals and four blocks – becoming the youngest player by nearly two years to hit those totals since at least 1985. He shot 2-for-11 in the first half, but he still made a noticeable defensive impact. In the second half, he got it going on offense, shooting 7-for-11, and his defense didn’t slip. He’s growing into a superstar right in front of our eyes, helping New Orleans end its nine-game losing streak and snap Memphis’ five-game winning streak. – DF

Hawks 121, Heat 114: Though LeBron James had 30 points and six assists, Miami has lost four of six. Monday, defense was the main culprit. The Heat’s defense, still above average, has been at its worst since the Big Three came together. The 121 points allowed to Atlanta, which were led by Paul Millsap’s 26, weren’t even the most Miami has allowed this season. The Heat yielded 123 points to the Warriors earlier this month. I certainly expect Miami to get it together by the playoffs, but a chance at home-court advantage in the East is slipping away. The Heat now trail the Pacers by four games, and though that doesn’t seem insurmountable, Indiana is on pace to lose fewer than eight more games the rest of the season. – DF

Rockets 126, Trail Blazers 113: Portland’s leaky defense finally faced a flood not even its league-best offense could offset. Led by LaMarcus Aldridge (27 points and 20 rebounds), the Trail Blazers scored enough to win most nights. They just couldn’t stop the Rockets. Portland hasn’t allowed so many points in a game since 2007, and that’s why its win streak is over at five games. It’s no secret the Trail Blazers defense has been lacking. Of the NBA’s top eight teams – the group commonly accepted as true title contenders – only Portland (20th) ranks outside the top 11 in points allowed per possession. The Rockets, led tonight by Chandler Parsons (31 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists), boast one of the NBA’s top offenses. But if the Trail Blazers want to win a playoff series or two in this stacked Western Conference, they must defend better. That starts on the defensive glass, where no Portland player besides Aldridge grabbed more than two defensive rebounds. Better contesting shots on the perimeter – Houston made 16-of-33 3-pointers (48.5 percent) – would be a good second step. — DF

Bulls 102, Lakers 100 (OT): Two teams that have had their seasons derailed by injuries played an entertaining and competitive game that required overtime to be decided. The Bulls probably should have won in regulation, but thanks no doubt to the league publicly reprimanding officials after non-calls with games on the line, Joakim Noah was whistled for a foul on Nick Young with four seconds remaining that sent Young to the line for three free throw attempts to tie it. Near the end of the overtime session, Young once again came through with a baseline jumper that tied it, and the Lakers were just 0.9 seconds away from heading to a second overtime period. But they couldn’t defend a simple baseline out of bounds play, and Manny Harris (recently signed from the D-League) horribly misplayed Taj Gibson, who sealed Harris and was able to get free for the game-winning layup as time expired. —BP

 Pacers 102, Warriors 94 : The second half of this game felt like a playoff game, down to the fired up crowd (got to love the people at Oracle) and the referees letting them play. The problem for Golden State was they were never able to dig out of the first quarter hole — behind Paul George’s 14 that quarter (23 for the game) the Pacers shot 64 percent for the quarter and led by 14 when it was done. Against a team that defends like the Pacers, that’s a huge hole. Indiana did a great job of chasing Stephen Curry off the three-point line — he was 3-of-11 from deep and that includes George Hill doing a great job on him late in the game. Indiana has won five in a row and looks every bit the team Miami should fear. Golden State got a taste of what it’s going to take to contend.

Suns keep winning, T.J. Warren keeps scoring, Nuggets outlast Jazz in 2OT

Suns star Devin Booker vs. Heat
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The Suns are unbeatable. T.J Warren is unstoppable. And the NBA is unapologetically fun.

Just another day in the NBA bubble.

Phoenix – already the NBA’s only undefeated team at Disney World – moved to 5-0 in seeding games with a 119-112 win over the Heat.

The Suns are still a half game outside play-in position with a tougher closing stretch than the ninth-place Trail Blazers.* But Phoenix sure is making the race interesting, and Portland isn’t closing the door.

*Both teams still play the 76ers and Mavericks. The Suns also play the Thunder. The Trail Blazers’ last seeding game is against the Nets.

Whether or not they make the playoffs, the Suns should absolutely be encouraged by this stretch. Unlike an early-season surge, when Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio carried big loads, Phoenix’s young players are leading the charge now. Devin Booker scored 35 points tonight. Jevon Carter added 20 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting off the bench. Deandre Ayton (18 points and 12 rebounds) continues to impress. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have steadily contributed at forward.

Expectations are rising for next season.

First, the Suns aren’t ready for this season to end soon.

All the best bubble stories were in Phoenix last season.

Pacers forward T.J. Warren – whom the Suns dumped with a draft-pick sweetener last summer – continued his scoring binge with 39 points in a 116-111 win over the Pacers.

Warren could always get buckets. But he has been on another level lately.

The Nuggets (somewhat safely in third place) and Jazz (who might prefer to finish sixth) had few obvious reasons to care about beating each other.

But then the game got going, and both teams’ competitive juices took over.

Donovan Mitchell drove for a layup to force overtime. Nikola Jokic converted inside to force double overtime. Finally, Jamal Murray – who scored 23 points in his first game of the resumption – put Denver up for good with a jumper then 3-pointer in a 134-132 victory.

Bubble games have featured such great energy and competitiveness.

Damian Lillard to Paul George on Instagram: ‘keep switching teams … running from the grind’

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Damian Lillard missed a pair of clutch free throws in the Trail Blazers’ loss to the Clippers today. Patrick Beverley and Paul George let Lillard hear about it. Lillard boasted in his post-game interview about his series-winning shots over Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and George’s Thunder in 2019 (which literally came over George).

Now, the conflict has spilled onto Instagram.

Bleacher Report:

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Dame, PG and Pat Bev went at it in our comments 👀

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George:

And you getting sent home this year 🤣 respect✊

Beverley:

Cancun on 3😂😂😂

Lillard:

keep switching teams … running from the grind . You boys is chumps

George:

@damianlillard respect that too in my stint with my first team I had more success… Dame time running out g

George did lead the Pacers to Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, losing to the eventual-champion Heat. Indiana also pushed Miami to Game 6 in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. George doesn’t get enough credit for those achievements.

Though Lillard’s Trail Blazers peaked in the 2019 Western Conference finals, they got swept by the team that lost in the NBA Finals.

But George forced his way out of Indiana despite that being the only place he could earn a super-max contract. He also re-signed with the Thunder, announcing his plan at a big party thrown by Russell Westbrook, then requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers only a year later.

Lillard just has different sensibilities. He said he’d stick with the Trail Blazers rather than join a super team. Lillard even talked disparagingly about players who get pressured into bypassing super-max contracts in order to be viewed as a winner elsewhere.

So, this clash makes sense.

Maybe it got too personal for George, who has overcome major injury and returned even better. He surely doesn’t want to be called a chump at this point in his career.

But I disagree with George’s championships-only argument. There is plenty of room for major achievements that fall short of a title – like the Pacers’ deep playoff runs George cited. And Lillard’s series-winning shot last year. George was the casualty on that play. There’s no way around it, and it’s likely still a sore spot. That was a high-profile moment that supersedes missed free throws in a seeding game.

Lillard and George can go back-and-forth about their accomplishments. Both have done plenty in this league. Their individual routes to success show their contrasting values. Neither are wrong. They’re just different.

That’s perfectly fine and – when it leads to spats like this – fun.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.

76ers star Ben Simmons leaving bubble for surgery

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Ben Simmons injured his knee, and the 76ers didn’t hide their concerns.

This is serious.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Obviously, the surgery itself is a setback. If Simmons becomes healthy enough to return before Philadelphia gets eliminated, he could be required to quarantine in his hotel room – which would limit rehab and training.

And of course it will be difficult for Philadelphia to advance deep into the playoffs without Simmons.

There are even graver concerns beyond this season. Will Simmons now be more susceptible to future injuries? This could derail a budding championship contender with Joel Embiid and Simmons.

Embiid already has long-term health concerns. It was always uncertain how long Philadelphia’s window would remain open despite Embiid and Simmons being so young.

Even next season could be perilous. How long will Simmons take to recover? Next season could be right around the corner (or not). If the 76ers’ outlook looks worse – especially amid the economic downturn caused by coronavirus – they could no longer follow through on their plan to pay the luxury tax. Slashing payroll could further reduce the roster’s effectiveness.

Already, expectations shrink this season without Simmons. Philadelphia appears increasingly likely to land the No. 6 seed and a tough first-round series against the Celtics (rather than a spot in the 4-5 series against the Heat or Pacers).

Will these difficult circumstances give 76ers coach Brett Brown more leeway to keep his job? Or do they just make it more likely the 76ers lose early in the playoffs and fire him?

He has plenty of options for proceeding without Simmons. Simmons was a multi-positional star who spent most of the season at point guard but had been playing power forward in the bubble.

Without Simmons, Al Horford moved back into the starting lineup, and Mike Scott – who had been out with a knee injury – joined the rotation. Glenn Robinson III could also get an expanded role once he’s healthy.

Many sans-Simmons lineups could give Philadelphia more spacing around Embiid, which makes the star center even more dangerous.

But this loss of talent can’t be offset and significantly lowers the 76ers’ ceiling this season and maybe reduces their odds of reaching their ceiling in future seasons.