The New York Knicks are in the middle of a nine-game winning streak and are the talk of the NBA. After being treated as an afterthought in their own city for the better part of a decade, the Knicks just beat the Celtics for the third time this season and are now one game behind the Cavaliers for 4th in the Eastern Conference.
So how did we get here?
Much has been made about the rotation change that started on December 4th and the addition of Josh Hart at the deadline, but perhaps the biggest reason for the Knicks’ recent run of success has been their improvement in the fourth quarter.
For much of the year, we discussed the myriad reasons New York struggled to close games. Heading into their February 7th game with Orlando, they ranked 23rd in fourth-quarter scoring, 23rd in field goal percentage, 25th in assists, 18th in plus/minus, and 27th in opponents’ rebounds allowed in the fourth quarter.
Their go-to late-game scorer, Julius Randle, also had a problem with being too ISO-focused. He was shooting just 28.6% in the clutch and had 13 turnovers, the most of any players in the league. While that was skewed by total minutes, he still averaged the 8th-most turnovers of any player who has appeared in double-digit “clutch” situations, which presented a real problem for the Knicks.
Additionally, the Knicks were shooting just 74.4% from the free throw line in the fourth quarter, which was 26th in the league, and were closing games with all of Randle, Jalen Brunson, and RJ Barrett on the floor. According to RAPTOR, they are the three worst defenders of the team’s rotation players, so having them all on the court at the end of games was a problem.
However, things have started to shift over the last month.
Since February 1st, the Knicks rank 10th in the NBA with 28.8 points in the fourth quarter on 50% shooting, which is 7th-best in the NBA. They have the 6th-best fourth quarter plus/minus while ranking 5th in fourth quarter rebounding and 19th in assists.
Again, as a reminder, prior to this they ranked 23rd in fourth-quarter scoring, 23rd in field goal percentage, 25th in assists, 18th in plus/minus, and 27th in opponents’ rebounds allowed in the fourth quarter. That’s a massive improvement.
Over that span, 47.8% of the Knicks’ shots have come off of zero dribbles, which is the 6th-best rate in the league. This stat is a clear indicator of passes setting up an open look since the shot is coming directly off of a pass. They rank 8th in the NBA with 31.6% of their fourth-quarter threes coming off of no dribble, which is part of the reason they are shooting 44.2% from deep in the fourth quarter since February 1st, 4th-best in the NBA.
New York has also attempted the 6th-lowest percent of fourth-quarter shots where a defender is in “tight” coverage (within two to four feet). There is only a defender in coverage on 31.3% of the Knicks’ fourth-quarter shots over the last months, which also shows the impact of their ball movement and lack of isolation basketball.
One of the biggest improvements offensively has been the play of Randle in the fourth quarter. We mentioned above that he was shooting just 28.6% in the clutch and had 13 turnovers prior to February 7th, the most of any player in the NBA over that span. From February 1st on, Randle is now shooting 40% from the field and 45.5% from three in the clutch, which NBA.com defines as the last five minutes of a game in which the point differential is five or less.
Randle also has just five turnovers with four assists in those 43.5 clutch minutes and has knocked down all 11 of his free throws. He has a lower fourth-quarter turnover rate during that span than teammates Isaiah Hartenstein and RJ Barrett.
When you pair that with the success of Brunson, who is shooting 71.4% from the field in the clutch and has the 10th-best clutch plus/minus of anybody in the NBA with over 20 minutes played, you can see why the Knicks offense is humming late in games.
Yet, they’re also getting it done on the defensive end.
The Knicks are also holding opponents to just 25.9 fourth-quarter points, good for 6th in the league, on just 43.1% from the field, 4th-best in the NBA. While opponents are still taking 8.9 threes in the quarter (8th-most), New York is holding them to just 29% shooting from beyond the arc, which ranks fourth.
A lot of this has to do with the way that head coach Tom Thibodeau has managed minutes in the fourth quarter since Josh Hart entered the rotation.
Over that span, Hart averages the most fourth-quarter minutes of any player on the Knicks, with 10.8 per game. Immanuel Quickley is second with 9.3 minutes per game, which is significant since they are two of the team’s best defenders and have the first and third-best plus/minus in the fourth quarter, with Brunson slotted in second. RJ Barrett has seen his fourth-quarter minutes cut to 6.3 per game over the last month, allowing for more reliable defenders to be on the court.
As a result, it feels like the Knicks are pulling all the right strings. Yes, the free throw shooting remains an issue as the Knicks rank 21st over the last month, shooting just 73.9% from the line in the fourth quarter. That is going to need to improve when they get into close playoff games, but everything else is trending in the right direction.
This team has already proven that it has the talent and grit to compete against the best in the East, so if the Knicks continues to put itself in the best position to succeed late in games, there is no telling how far this team can go.
For more Knicks coverage, visit amNY Sports
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