The New York Knicks have made a habit of climbing back from big deficits only to throw the game away again at the end. Perhaps all of that is changing after they clawed back on the road against the Orlando Magic on Tuesday and then sealed the game at the end, holding on for a 102-98 win.
The comeback win marks the third strong fourth quarter in a row for a Knicks team that has really struggled to put games away this season.
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We’ve covered the team’s lack of success in late-game situations before and they came into Tuesday night’s game 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.
Against the Magic, it seemed on the surface like Jalen Brunson willed the team to victory.
The point guard scored 25 points and nailed the go-ahead basket with 1:13 left. He later fed Jericho Sims for a dunk and a three-point lead with 40 seconds left and then drilled four clutch free throws to seal the game in the waning seconds.
After Tuesday night, Brunson has scored 120 “clutch” points this season, which is the most in the NBA. A “clutch” situation is described as one in the last five minutes of a game that is within five points. Brunson has appeared in 28 clutch situations this season, averaging 4.3 points in 4.7 minutes, while knocking down the 2nd most clutch field goals and hitting the 3rd-most clutch free throws.
Brunson and teammate Julius Randle have played the most clutch minutes of any players in the entire league.
Yet, while Brunson has been a force on offense, Randle has struggled in late-game situations, much of which can be attributed to his tendency to devolve into isolation situations that led to bad shots. The Knicks forward is shooting just 28.6% in the clutch and has 13 turnovers, the most of any players in the league. Of course, that’s skewed by total minutes; however, he still averages the 8th-most turnovers of any player who has appeared in double-digit “clutch” situations.
However, none of that was apparent on Tuesday, and both Randle and the Knicks as a whole have been improving in the clutch recently.
While Brunson led the team with 10 points in the final five minutes on Tuesday, Randle also chipped in five points in the clutch on 50% from the field, pulled down three rebounds, and nailed both of his free throws at the end of the game on the way to 22 points and 14 rebounds on the night.
That free throw shooting has been a major issue for New York on the season, shooting just 74.4% from the charity stripe in the fourth quarter, which is 26th in the league. Knocking down all six of their late game free throws on Tuesday was a major step in the right direction, but not the only one.
In the last three games, the Knicks are 3rd in the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring, 9th in field goal percentage, 3rd in turnovers, and 7th in assists.
That final stat may be the most important as the lack of isolation basketball has allowed the team to get better looks at the basket.
Over these three games, 60% of the Knicks’ shots have come off of zero dribbles, which is a clear indicator of passing setting up an open look. This has been most evident in their three-point shooting, where 46.7% of their fourth-quarter threes have come off of no dribble, the most in the NBA over that span. As a result, the Knicks have knocked down 5.7 three-pointers per game at a 50% clip.
The scoring efficiency has actually increased overall. New York ranks 3rd in the NBA in effective field goal percentage, 2nd in true shooting percentage, and 1st in net offensive rating in the fourth quarter over these three games.
Part of that is because New York has attempted the 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 21.7% of the Knicks’ fourth-quarter shots over the last three games, which shows the impact of their ball movement and lack of isolation basketball. As a result, they have the best fourth-quarter plus/minus in the NBA over that span.
Considering that features games against the Clippers, 76ers, and a Magic team that is 12th in the NBA in winning percentage since December 1st, it’s not exactly like the Knicks are doing this against easy opponents.
Additionally, head coach Tom Thibodeau appears to be adapting his late-game strategy.
On February 4th against the Clippers, the Knicks opted not to foul in the final seconds despite being up by three points. The popular wisdom is to commit a foul that seconds the opponent to the free throw line where they can only make two free throws, ensuring that you’re able to hold the lead.
New York chose not to do that against Los Angeles and Nicolas Batum hit a last-second three-point shot that sent the game into overtime, where the Clippers would run away with it. However, on Tuesday, New York fouled Orlando twice while holding a three-point lead in the final seconds. The Magic made three of their four free throws, while the Knicks hit all six of theirs to hold onto the four-point win.
Another Thibodeau change on Tuesday night was to use offense-defense substitutions late in the game, changing his personnel on the fly to ensure he has the best defensive lineup on the court when the Knicks were on defense and his best shooters on the court when they were on offense; a move which is much easier to accomplish when the clock is stopped for free throws.
Against the Magic, Thibodeau opted to use Sims and Hartenstein on defensive possessions to put a big body with long arms on the inbounder and not cause one of his primary scorers to pick up unnecessary fouls. Then he would insert Quentin Grimes and RJ Barrett back into the game when the Knicks were about to go on offense so that he could have added ball-handling and plus free-throw shooters on the court.
The move worked out and, frankly, many of the Knicks’ moves have worked in the fourth quarter lately.
“That’s what it came down to in the end,” Randle said on Tuesday. “We made our free throws, got rebounds, and didn’t turn the ball over.”
While three games is certainly a small sample size, if these games turn out to even be partially permanent, the Knicks may be turning the corner into becoming a legitimate contender.
For more Knicks coverage, visit amNY Sports
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