Knicks’ defensive issues re-emerging before playoffs

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Tom Thibodeau Knicks
New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau watches his team play the Miami Heat during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in Miami, Fla. (AP Photo/Michael Laughlin)

After rattling off three straight wins, the Knicks have now lost two in a row, allowing 267 combined points to the Timberwolves and Heat which renews questions about the Knicks’ defensive ability as the team heads into its playoff push. 

The biggest area of concern in both losses was the Knicks’ ability to defend the three-point shot. 


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The Timberwolves shot 14-of-24 from beyond the arc, while the Heat were 16-of-28 from deep in the next game.  That 30-of-52 mark is 57.7%, which is an alarmingly high rate to hit from three. 

Now, the first instinct could be to say that both of those teams were just shooting exceptionally well from deep and that would be partly true. Taurean Prince was a ridiculous 8-of-8 from beyond the arc in the Timberwolves’ win which is clearly an anomaly, but Prince is also a career 37.3% three-point shooter, and the Knicks’ decisions in how they defended him were poor. 

We covered earlier in the season that the Knicks’ defensive principles under Tom Thibodeau have led to issues defending three-point shots. 

Part of the hallmark of a Thibodeau defense is aggressive help defense and constant rotations. The Knicks sell out to stop penetration into the lane, often over-collapsing to the elbow, which allows for open three-point looks from the wing.

The Knicks will often send an additional defender to help or “pinch” in the low block or send an early help defender to the elbow to prevent penetration from guards at the top of the key. When the guard is forced to kick out to the perimeter, Knicks players will aggressively close out on the shooter to force another pass or a contested jumpshot. However, this can often lead to being overly focused on the ball and losing sight of shooters on the wing. 

You can also see the way the Knicks are overly focused on the ball-side of the Minnesota offense and totally lose track of Prince, who was already 7-of-7 from three at this point in the game. This is a dagger shot with the Timberwolves only up by one with under two minutes to play. 

On the season, the Knicks allow the 4th-most open three-point shots of any team in the league, which is defined as not having a defender within four-to-six feet of the shooter. Knicks’ opponents also shoot the third-most three-point shots per game of any team in the league at 36.9 threes per game. 

So New York’s opponents know that they can scheme for consistent three-point shots, and the Knicks give up a lot of open three-point looks. That’s a risky gamble because it’s far easier for teams to “get hot” from deep when you’re consistently giving them good looks. The Knicks saw that firsthand these last two games. 

What’s going to happen in the playoffs if they face the 76ers, who led the NBA in three-point shooting percentage? Or the Cavaliers, who are 13th, shooting 0.4% better than Minnesota?

Jalen Brunson Knicks
New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) reaches for the ball in front of Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in Miami, Fla. (AP Photo/Michael Laughlin)

The other big defensive issue for the Knicks over the last two games has been the way that teams are attacking Jalen Brunson. 

We covered that the Knicks have a potential issue with Brunson, Julius Randle, and RJ Barrett all grading out as poor defenders, but it was Brunson that Minnesota and Miami went after. 

Minnesota head coach Chris Finch mentioned that the team “did a good job of exploiting the things we talked about offensively before the game.” Based on how the game played out, that likely meant scheming their offense specifically to put Brunson on an island in one-on-one situations where they knew they would have a major advantage, even without Anthony Edwards in the lineup. 

The Knicks are also clearly aware that teams want to go after Brunson, which is why he spent a lot of time guarding the 6’9″ Jaden McDaniels in the corner rather than guarding point guard Mike Conley. Thibodeau is likely trying to hide Brunson from having the responsibility of guarding the main ballhandler, but if the Timberwolves were able to scheme their offense to still put Brunson at a disadvantage then it would be likely New York’s playoff opponent will be able to do the same during a long series. 

Which means the Knicks need to come up with a better defensive solution for their offensive catalyst. 

For the season, Brunson ranks as the 44th-best point guard (out of 71) in FiveThirtyEight’s Defensive RAPTOR rating and the 32nd-worst overall defender in the NBA by DARKO Defensive Daily Plus Minus (Randle ranks as the 23rd-worst). You can see in the photo below that Brunson’s DARKO NBA percentiles are all exceptionally high, except his Defensive Daily Plus Minus (D-DPM), which is below the 20th percentile. 

There are still eight games to go in the regular season for the Knicks, so there is ample time to adjust to what Miami and Minnesota were able to do offensively, but the Knicks will absolutely need to come up with some answers if they want to make it out of the first round of the playoffs. 

For more Knicks coverage visit amNY Sports


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