Will Knicks get buried by poor three-point defense?

Knicks Celtics
Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) shoots as New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30), forward Cam Reddish, and Boston Celtics forward Noah Vonleh (4) watch during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Jessie Alcheh)

On Saturday night, the Knicks allowed a record-breaking 27 three-pointers in a 133-118 loss to the Boston Celtics. While it may be easy to write that off as a tough loss to one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, that would be ignoring the major flaw that the Celtics exposed which could derail this season for the Knicks.

New York is bad at defending the three-point shot. 

After the first pre-season win over the Pistons, I mentioned that Detroit was getting a lot of open looks from three that simply weren’t falling. Against the Cavs, the Knicks allowed 23 threes on 50 attempts and head coach Tom Thibodeau mentioned that the Knicks needed to close out better and fight through screens. 

Then last week, in the Knicks’ collapse against the Hawks, I mentioned that the Hawks were simply missing on their shots during New York’s first-half run. 

I think the issues with New York’s perimeter defense are finally coming home to roost. 

As of Monday afternoon, the Knicks are 13th in the NBA in three-point percentage allowed at 35.4%. However, they are dead last in the league with 14.9 three-pointers made against. Teams are shooting an average of 42.1 threes per game against the Knicks, which is 3.5 more than Minnesota, who are next worst. 

It’s clear that teams know how they can attack this New York defense. 

However, it’s not just that the Knicks are giving up lots of threes, it’s also that these three-point shots are wide-open. 

New York currently gives up the second-most wide-open three-point shots, meaning without a defender within six feet. Opponents are wide open on 39.6% of their three-point shots against the Knicks. That’s egregious and can only be chalked up to poor execution or poor strategy in defending the three. 

There are a few key ways the Knicks are getting burned that need to be corrected. 

The first is simply that New York has a tendency to over-help on defense. On multiple occasions guys like Obi Toppin on Evan Fournier sag off of their man if he’s alone on the wing, choosing instead to stick close to the paint in order to guard against the drive.

However, when the ball is swung or kicked out after quick penetration, the Knicks are late to contest the shot, leading to too many good looks from deep. Some writers have called this a “pack the paint” strategy, but whatever you want to label it, it’s not working and the Knicks need to shift gears. 

The next issue for New York is its struggles against the pick-n-roll, which has become a staple in modern NBA offenses. The Knicks right now are terrible at defending it and one of the primary culprits is Julius Randle. In this clip from the Hawks game, you can see just how much space he gives to a shooter like Trae Young.

The same thing happened against the Cavaliers as well. Randle, and others, sagged too far off of screens and Kevin Love drilled big shots. Against the Celtics, according to Fred Katz, “Boston attacked Randle with screens all night with 17 3s coming after actions involving him defending a pick. The Celtics made 10 of them.”

That’s a major issue that needs to be fixed, especially since Julius Randle’s presence on the court is also preventing New York from playing Obi Toppin major minutes. 

Toppin seems to be in the midst of a breakout season, only he’s not getting the minutes to prove it. In the last five games that he plays 20+ minutes, New York is 4-1 and he’s averaging 25.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and shooting 50% from three after all the off-season work he put in on his shot.

However, playing him and Randle on the court together has proven to be a struggle defensively unless New York is playing an undersized team, as they did against the 76ers without Joel Embiid. If Randle’s presence on the court is going to keep Toppin’s minutes limited then Randle is going to need to shore up his defense against pick’n’rolls and three-point shots because it’s becoming a real liability. 

With a winnable stretch of games coming up against the Timberwolves, Nets, Pistons, and Thunder, head coach Tom Thibodeau is going to need to go back to the drawing board on his defensive strategy for three-point shots and also think about lineups that could help New York maximize its perimeter defense.

Because if they don’t, they won’t be a competitive team this season. 

For more Knicks coverage, visit amNY Sports

Dejounte Murray scored 36 points to led the Hawks over the New York Knicks
Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray (5) shoots as New York guard Derrick Rose (4) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)