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5 observations from the Knicks 131-114 preseason win over the Pacers: Jalen Brunson, Obi Toppin shine

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The Knicks continued their strong preseason with an impressive 131-114 win over the Indiana Pacers at Madison Square Garden on Friday night. 

New York put the pedal to the metal again, playing at a fast pace that saw them hit 44% of their shots and 26-of-27 from the free throw line. The Knicks had six different players score in double figures as they continue to look like they could be a fun and energetic team this season. 

So what should we take away from this preseason game? Below are my five key observations from Friday’s win. 

1. The Jalen Brunson and RJ Barrett Pairing Works

Through two games it certainly seems like Jalen Brunson and RJ Barrett are going to like playing next to one another. “It’s been really good for us this past two games,” said Barrett after the game. “Things are kind of clicking, so we’re just trying to get better.”

Both are super comfortable attacking the basket, and Brunson has proven himself to be a diverse scorer on the drive. He can attack with either hand, pull up, or finish through contact. He also was able to get to the line at will tonight, hitting all nine of his free throw attempts and finishing with 17 points, five assists, one steal, and one rebound. 

However, Brunson’s penetrating style works because of Barrett’s improved shooting. When he came into the league, Barrett was far more comfortable attacking the basket than shooting set shots from the perimeter. He made clear strides at the end of last season, and that showed through tonight as he hit 4-of-7 from beyond the arc and 6-of-15 overall for 18 points, three rebounds, and three assists.  

“We’re able to shoot a good percentage from three because we’re all in there creating the opportunities for each other and then we’re knocking them down,” said Barrett. “Getting in the [paint] and creating wide open ones, those ones are easier to make, so that’s been really good for us.”

It was also nice to see Julius Randle become more comfortable ceding scoring to his two teammates early in the game. At one point in the first quarter, Randle ran the break and dished to RJ Barrett in the corner for an open three.

As Barrett mentioned, Randle’s ability to start the game looking to get his teammates involved as opened up opportunities for himself later in both contests so far. “He was able to do whatever he wanted once the defense fanned out a little bit,” explained Barrett. That led to Randle playing more “bully ball” in the second half and getting more shots for himself.

His comfort in letting the offense run through Brunson and/or Barrett for stretches would be huge for New York this season. 

 

2. Consistency Issues With Three-Point Offense and Defense Remain

On Tuesday I mentioned that the Knicks’ three-point defense was an issue early in the game and that was the case again. Indiana hit four of their first five threes, and the Knicks were struggling to close out and challenge shots. While they did recover for stretches in the second and third quarters, Indiana ended up shooting 39.4% from three. It’s an area that New York is going to need to shore up when they go up against the better teams in the league.  

On the offensive side, the Knicks also seem intent to fire away from deep. But that didn’t always work to their advantage. In the first quarter, they shot just 25% from three, 4-of-16, with over half of their shots from beyond the arc.

The Knicks then opened the second quarter by hitting their first three three-pointers, including two from Miles McBride, and would hit 6-of-8 threes in the quarter. Things got better from there, settling into the flow of the offense and finishing by shooting 40.5% as a team, which is going to make them a more complete offense. 

 

3. The Knicks Pace Remains but Needs Some Fine-Tuning

The Knicks still want to run. That’s apparently whether the starters or second unit is on the court. Even on a made basket, the Knicks are inbounding the ball instantaneously and trying to push the ball down the other end of the court. It’s a welcome change from last season and fits with a team that is going to have a lot of youth, especially in its second unit. 

However, the Pacers played tremendous fastbreak defense, limiting the Knicks to just nine total fastbreak points in three quarters before things got a little sloppy in the fourth. Of course, when they did give up fastbreak points, it was usually to Obi Toppin doing crazy things like this:

Early in the game, the Pacers’ solid transition defense was keeping the Knicks out of rhythm. New York would push the ball down the court, looking for a quick transition bucket, but when the easy buckets were taken away, the Knicks would still get off a quick shot, seemingly unable to dial back their desire for pace. The result was the poor shooting I covered above. 

However, the Knicks made a clear adjustment in the second quarter, lengthening their offensive possessions when the transition opportunities weren’t there.

Instead of hoisting quick shots anyway, the Knicks pulled the ball out and got into more of their half-court set. As a result, the three-pointers started to come from the flow of the offense and with the shooters’ feet set, which led to higher-percentage shots and more makes. 

“Once we got back to moving the ball side-to-side, things got going,” said Thibodeau after the game. 

This is an adjustment New York is going to have to be more seamless with during the regular season. Not every team will let them run all over them the way that the Pistons did (or the Pacers’ bench), so the Knicks will need to be able to pull the ball out and quickly get into their halfcourt sets rather than letting the energy force them into bad shots. 

 

4. Knicks’ Interior Defense Was a Strength

While defense has always been a hallmark of Tom Thibodeau teams, attention is usually paid to the perimeter and the way steals can create fastbreaks. However, the New York defense oftentimes seemed toughest on the interior tonight. 

While they allowed 52 points in the paint, 18 of those came at the end of the third quarter and in the fourth when things started to get a little less disciplined and a little more chaotic, as is befitting of a preseason game. 

Early in the game, the Knicks would challenge the ballhandler at the foul lane, forcing them to pick up their dribble, then drop back to an arm’s length away, able to contest the shot but also close off the lane to any potential cutters. Mitchell Robinson and Jericho Sims executed this to perfection a couple of times, forcing off-balance foul line jump shots that didn’t connect. 

Those rebounds were then easily kicked out and turned into transition offense, and while it didn’t lead to as many easy points as a perimeter steal, it’s another way that New York seems to be able to turn offense into defense and a nice defensive failsafe if the aggressive perimeter defense isn’t able to do its job. 

 

5. Second Unit Update: Obi Toppin thrives, but Isaiah Hartenstein Struggles

Before the game, Tom Thibodeau mentioned that he loved the pace of the second unit and how fast they played. But early on, the aforementioned inability to score on the fastbreak seemed to have a big impact on the second unit, which seemed to struggle when not running out in transition.

Isaiah Hartenstein seems to want to operate from the perimeter, screening and guiding cutters, and Obi Toppin was operating as the baseline runner. However, Miles McBride, Derrick Rose, and Immanuel Quickley were all hanging around the perimeter as well for most possessions in the first half, so the ball movement would get bogged down and somebody would force a bad shot. 

Things opened up when they went to Jericho Sims instead of Isaiah Hartenstein. Sims’ presence as more of a low-post scorer, opened up the perimeter more for the guards. While he himself didn’t fill the statsheet (finishing with four points, five rebounds, a steal, and a block in 11 minutes) the physical presence he brings looked like a good fit alongside the collection of small, quick guards. 

Hartenstein was the only player on the Knicks who had a negative plus/minus on the night, finishing at -2. His shot wasn’t falling, going 0-for-3 from the field, all from beyond the arc, while chipping in six rebounds. 

It’s nice that Hartenstein can give the Knicks a stretch big man, but he also needs to show himself to be a threat inside if he’s going to continue to play in a small second-unit lineup. If not, he could lose more minutes to Jericho Sims or Thibodeau could choose to replace a smaller perimeter player like Miles McBride with Cam Reddish, who will shift back to the bench with the roster at full strength. 

Hartenstein’s value as a stretch big man could also be less necessary if Obi Toppin continues to shoot like he did tonight. The power forward was 10-of-14 from the field, including 4-of-7 from three for 24 points to go along with three rebounds and two blocks.

Toppin primarily operated on the perimeter all game, both offensively and defensively due to the perimeter-oriented lineups the Pacers were putting out on the field. Toppin either scored on threes or leaking out after a steal or a block to finish a fastbreak dunk, like in the video clip above. 

“He brings life,” said Thibodeau. “He brings life in everything he does. He walks into the building and there’s a bounce to him. He energizes the team, and you can feed off of that.”

That defensive versatility on the perimeter is something he’s been working hard on this offseason. 

“I’ve worked really hard on my defense this year,” said Toppin. “Not just guard 4s and 5s but guarding guards as well, so I’m just gonna continue working on that and getting better throughout the season.” 

If he does and keeps providing complete performances like this, the Knicks are going to be a much deeper team than many experts expected. 

For more Knicks coverage, visit amNY Sports

Knicks offseason may have freed up more minutes for Obi Toppin
New York Knicks forward Obi Toppin (1) looks out at the crowd after an NBA basketball game against the Toronto Raptors, Sunday, April 10, 2022 in New York. (AP Photo/Jessie Alcheh)

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