Knicks defense must keep them afloat during injury-plagued stretch

Knicks Jalen Brunson
New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) and Houston Rockets forward Jabari Smith Jr. fight for a loose ball in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

The Knicks currently sit at 33-20 as the fourth seed in the East with a four-game cushion in the standings from the play-in. While the injuries are starting to stack up for the Knickerbockers, including Mitchell Robinson, Julius Randle, and OG Anunoby being out for an extended period; New York must find a way to stay afloat.

To do that, head coach Tom Thibodeau and the team must return to their defensive roots and rely on that end of the floor to keep them towards the top half of the East during this grueling stretch.

While the Knicks are 4-3 since losing Randle and Anunoby, they have lost three out of their last four, including games to the Dallas Mavericks and Indiana Pacers. After having the No. 1 ranked defense in terms of defensive rating after the Anunoby acquisition, New York has slipped on that end of the floor in the last seven games, ranking 14th in the NBA over that stretch.

“​​I’m disappointed in the result but I’m not disappointed in our team,” Thibodeau said after the loss to the Pacers on Saturday night. “We’ve fought all year, and we’ve responded to every challenge. I think we’re capable of doing a lot better and I think we will.”

Responding to this stretch of adversity will be made easier with the trade deadline reinforcements of Alec Burks and Bojan Bogdanovic from the Detroit Pistons, who made their debut in blue and orange for the first time Saturday night.

Burks dazzled in his debut, scoring 22 points in 22 minutes off the bench, including going 4-for-7 from beyond the arc. Bogdanovic on the other hand struggled, scoring 11 points on 3-of-10 shooting from the field. 

“It’s a playoff atmosphere every single game,” Bogdanovic said, “I felt good there but unfortunately we couldn’t get a W. It’s still kind of early for me and AB… it will take a couple of games probably.” 

As the Pistons acquisitions get used to the Thibodeau defensive system, it is paramount they are bought in on that end of the basketball. The Knicks have let up 120 or more points in back-to-back games for the first time since acquiring Anunoby, a clear sign New York is missing their defensive anchor. 

The offense for the Knickerbockers has stayed consistent, hovering around the 118 mark. It is clear at this point it is going to be the defense that elevates the Knicks to the elite tier of the East. 

While the defense will likely figure itself out in the long run when Randle and Anunoby have recovered from their injuries, Brunson is worried about the near future and continuing to stack wins to keep them afloat at the top of the conference.

“We got to focus on right now, how we can be good right now,” Brunson said. “We can’t keep looking ahead to how we’re gonna be good and not be good now… I’m worried about one day at a time and our next game.”

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