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Knicks’ defensive principles, under-used bench continue to lead to late game collapses

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Knicks Jalen Brunson is fouled by Jrue Holiday
Milwaukee Bucks’ Jrue Holiday, right, fouls New York Knicks’ Jalen Brunson during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The Knicks had a 16-point lead over the Bucks with 2:26 to play in the third quarter on Monday night. It looked like they were well on their way to one of their best wins of the season. But, as they’ve done time and time again this season, the bottom fell out, and the Knicks found themselves on the wrong side of a 111-107 loss. 

Their inability to close out games has already been a concerning trend for New York but it’s now bordering on infuriating and could lead to somebody losing a job.

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Just this year, the Knicks have blown a nine-point lead with 44 seconds left in a loss to Dallas in December, blown a 23-point lead against the Hawks in November, collapsed down the stretch against the 76ers on Christmas, gave up a seven-point fourth-quarter lead in a loss to the Bulls, held on against Toronto despite blowing a 16 point lead with 4:37 left, and held on against San Antonio despite playing a nine-point fourth-quarter lead. 

Last night against the Bucks it took them only five minutes of game time to watch a 16-point lead evaporate. 

One of the continued issues we’ve discussed is head coach Tom Thibodeau’s refusal to play his bench. Last night, the New York bench played 47 combined minutes. The starters played 193 combined minutes. Four of the five starters played at least 37 minutes, and both Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson played over 40 minutes. 

That’s unsustainable, especially in a game that was as physical and grueling as this one was. The Knicks’ starters simply had no juice at the end of the game, and that has become a recurring trend this year. 

If New York believes that Thibodeau is their coach of the future then they need to get him bench players that he trusts for more than 10 minutes a game. However, if the organization believes in the talent of young bench assets like Obi Toppin, Miles McBride, and Jericho Sims then it might be time to ensure they are getting more minutes or find a coach who is willing to lighten the load of his starters a bit. 

New York is already at a talent deficit when put up against some of the best teams in the league because they don’t have a player like Giannis Antetokounmpo, who, even on a bad night, plays great defense and finishes with 22 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, and two blocks.

The Knicks need to have near-perfect execution and precision if they want to compete at this level, and the heavy minutes total has been leading to sloppy late-game basketball that is costing this team wins. 

One of the areas where this is most evident is on the defensive end. 

Part of the hallmark of a Tom Thibodeau defense is aggressive help defense and constant rotations. It’s why you see things like this play from Evan Fournier, where is comes over to help on Giannis in the low block, even though he leaves his man wide open on the other side of the court. 

Thibodeau’s coaching resume has been built on his defensive acumen and intensity, which is highlighted by players flying all over the court. This comes from principles that promote early help defense and then a series of consequential rotations. 

For example, the Knicks will often send an additional defender to help or “pinch” in the low block, as Fournier did above. They will also 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. 

The main issues with this are the fact that it is a tiring style of defense and those closeouts can get slower and the rotations less precise when players have played 35+ minutes. You can see in this video below that, late in the third quarter, two Knicks defenders close out on the same Bucks player, Jevon Carter, and Randle is slow to get back on defense, which leads to a wide-open three. 

The other concern is that good passing teams, like the Bucks, will continue to move the ball fluidly until they find the opening in New York’s defensive rotations and get open looks. If opponents are able to knock down a high percentage of those, as the Bucks did last night, hitting 12 of their last 23 three-pointers, then it puts New York at a serious disadvantage. 

“Once we made one, then we made the second one,” Giannis said after the game. “Then we made the third one.”

This tendency to over-help and get caught is a big reason why the Knicks give up the third-most three-point attempts in the league. They also allow the 6th-most shots in the league that are deemed “wide open,” when a defense is not within six feet or more and allow the 4th-most “wide-open” three-point attempts in the league. The only teams that allow more wide-open three-pointers are the Magic, Rockets, and Timberwolves, who are a combined 32 games under .500.

That’s not company you want to be in. 

New York also has a bad habit of not altering their defensive principles as the game goes on. Both the 76ers and the Mavericks talked about this after they earned comeback wins over New York in December. The Bucks didn’t have to talk about it after the game, but it was clear that well-coached teams with smart players are able to adjust to New York’s defense in the second half of games. When you add that to the fatigue of Knicks’ players, it’s easy to see how the team continues to blow big leads. 

At this point in the season, we’ve long since entered the stage where this is a major concern. It’s time for Thibodeau to make adjustments or the Knicks to make plans to adjust as an organization in the offseason. 

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Knicks Julius Randle
New York Knicks’ Julius Randle (30) reacts during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)