Yes, the New York Knicks won on Wednesday night, and, yes, they are now guaranteed to have a winning record at the halfway mark of the season. Despite those positive takeaways the team also continued to display a troubling inability to close out games.
New York led San Antonio by as many as 12 points in the third quarter and as many as nine points in the fourth; however, with four minutes left in the game, they had allowed the Spurs to take a one-point lead. Even after the Knicks reclaimed the advantage, they still needed a flukey five-second inbounding violation on the Spurs with five seconds left in the game to secure the win.
Big time growing pains for the Spurs. They pull the game against the Knicks to a one-possession game with 5.7 seconds left but Jeremy Sochan takes a 5 second violation on the inbounds. Looks like Knicks will get the victory pic.twitter.com/xXyDKDqRuG
— Mike Vorkunov (@MikeVorkunov) January 5, 2023
While New York may have come away from this one on top, the stressful finishes are becoming an issue that could hold this team back.
The debacle in Dallas that saw the Knicks blow a nine-point lead with 44 seconds left is the one that most people remember, but this team has the second-most blown leads in the league this season. They also blew a 23-point lead against the Hawks in November, collapsed down the stretch against the 76ers on Christmas, and gave up a seven-point fourth-quarter lead in a loss to the Bulls.
So why do the Knicks seem to continue to struggle down the stretch?
Last night’s struggles had to do with their free-throw shooting. New York made just 2-of-4 free throws in the final minutes of the game and shot 65% from the charity stripe overall. On the season, they rank 25th in the NBA in fourth-quarter free throw percentage, shooting 75.6%. The quickest way to blow late leads is to miss free throws.
Part of their late-game struggles might also have to do with the way head coach Tom Thibodeau arranges his rotations. Over the last month, the Knicks have three players in the top 20 in the league in minutes played per game – Julius Randle, Jalen Brunson, and Quentin Grimes. They’re the only team aside from the Raptors who have played three players that much each game.
Considering RJ Barrett is also in the top 40 in the league in minutes played per game over the last month, that means 80% of the players on the court for the Knicks to close out games can often be running on fumes.
If you’re wondering how that’s changed since Barrett has been out, it hasn’t. Immanuel Quickley has stepped into his spot in the starting lineup and has played 43.1 minutes per game over his last five games.
The intense minute totals for most of the starters may also be a reason why the Knicks are 28th in the NBA in scoring in the fourth quarter, 28th in field goal percentage, 29th in three-point field goal percentage, and 16th in plus/minus. By most metrics, they are one of the league’s worst fourth-quarter offenses.
If Thibodeau were to utilize the bench more often earlier in the game and not play the majority of his starting lineup for the entire first quarter, it could give them more juice at the end of games. Not to mention that it could also stagger the rotation and allow guys like Brunson or Barrett to play minutes with an ineffective bench unit, but that’s a story for another time.
However, another reason for the fourth-quarter offensive struggles covered above is the way the Knicks’ approach changes in the fourth quarter. Far too many times a fourth-quarter possession ends in a Randle isolation set.
Randle has had a tremendous season for the Knicks, but he currently runs the 9th-most isolation plays in the entire league; yet, he is just 51st-percentile in efficiency out of isolation, shooting 40.7% with a 43% effective field goal percentage.
In last night’s win over the Spurs, despite Brunson scoring 38 points, three of the last five New York possessions were Randle isolation plays. They resulted in two blocked shots and one turnover.
The other two possessions were made baskets by Brunson.
New York cannot continue to allow isolation sets to permeate their fourth-quarter offense, and they can’t have one player stopping the flow of that offense. Too often they get away from what has worked for them and that’s on Thibodeau to shut it down before it becomes a habit they can’t overcome.
If he’s unable to shake his team of these bad fourth-quarter habits, Knicks fans could be looking at some heartbreaking losses in the postseason, if they don’t blow their chances of getting there first.