The Knicks earned a statement win on Tuesday night, beating the Cleveland Cavaliers 105-103 despite not having Mitchell Robinson. While it’s prudent to not overreact to one game, the win could help identify the blueprint for how the Knicks can survive a brutal stretch of schedule without their defensive anchor.
Heading into Tuesday night’s game, the Knicks had the toughest remaining strength of schedule of any team in the NBA. Their 33 remaining games include three against the Celtics, Heat, and Nets each, two each against the 76ers and Clippers, one against the Nuggets, one against the Hawks, and one more against the Cavs, to name a few.
Given that the Knicks had been giving up 126.7 points per game since Mitchell Robinson had been hurt, the second-worst mark in the NBA, and opponents had an 11.7 plus/minus, which was 5th-worst in the NBA, it was understandable for fans to be concerned about the direction the season was heading.
However, the Knicks responded in a big way on Tuesday.
Julius Randle led the way for the Knicks, as he has for most of the season. He scored 17 points in the first quarter to help New York to a 34-27 lead. They would push the lead to 13 before the Cavs made a run of their own, even taking a 73-70 lead late in the third.
However, New York’s final run showcased an offensive identity that can help get them to survive this tough stretch of schedule. When the Knicks when on a 32-13 run to take an 11-point lead with eight minutes left in the game, it was on the back of their ball movement and teamwork. Ten of their 12 field goals during that stretch were assisted.
In fact, the Knicks dished out 25 assists as a team last night, which marks the first time all season New York has had at least 25 assists in three straight games after collecting 30 against the Raptors and 27 against the Hawks. With New York not having a true go-to scorer in isolation sets, they need this level of teamwork in order to overcome the defensive lapses that will occur without Robinson.
In the eight games prior to this stretch, the Knicks had averaged under 17 assists and topped 20 assists just once. On the season, they rank 27th in the NBA with just 22.6 assists per game, 20th in assist-to-turnover ratio, and a dismal 29th in assist ratio, which is the number of assists to possessions.
We’ve covered numerous times before that the Knicks struggle when they rely on isolation. Randle operates out of isolation the 9th-most of any player in the league, but is just a 62nd-percentile scorer in those situations, averaging 0.96 points per possession on 43.8% shooting from the field.
While Randle was certainly a star for New York on Tuesday, registering 36 points on 21 shots, including 8-for-12 from beyond the arc, he also chipped in 13 rebounds and four assists for a well-rounded line. In fact, six Knicks totaled three assists or more, with Immanuel Quickley leading the team with six.
In addition to the increased ball movement, Quickley’s emergence will be crucial for New York in their upcoming stretch. He’s not led the team in plus/minus in six straight games is 20th in the NBA in plus/minus on the season.
Knicks plus-minus leaders
Tonight: Immanuel Quickley
Over last 2 games: Quickley
Last 3 games: Quickley
Last 4: Quickley
— Knicks Analytics (@_analyKnicks) January 25, 2023
Another crucial factor in the Knicks’ win on Tuesday was the play of Isaiah Hartenstein, and for as tough as we’ve been on him, he’s certainly deserving of praise for this one.
It had been 16 games since he had played more than 20 minutes, but he played the entire fourth quarter on Tuesday night over starter Jericho Sims and for good reason. In the fourth quarter alone, Hartenstein had six rebounds, including two offensive, three assists, a block, and a game-saving defensive play on a Donovan Mitchell drive on the Cavs’ final possession.
Isaiah Hartenstein with the BIG clinching stop on defense!
— Knicks Videos (@sny_knicks) January 25, 2023
With the win, the Knicks are now one game behind the Heat for 6th place in the Eastern Conference. They’ll travel to Boston on Thursday night to take on the Celtics and perhaps their new team-first mentality can assist with a major upset.