The 8-game winning streak which revitalized the New York Knicks season has come to an end. The team still sits in 6th place in the Eastern Conference, just 4.5 games out of first, and remains a team on the rise, but the 113-106 loss to the Raptors on Wednesday night highlighted a few issues that remain.
On some level, the loss is not surprising considering that the Knicks were missing Quentin Grimes. Although he’s not as big a name as Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, or Jalen Brunson, Grimes has arguably been the most important player in the Knicks’ turnaround.
Since Grimes was moved into the starting rotation, the Knicks have the 5th-best winning percentage in the league and have a plus/minus of 8.3 and a net rating of 8.1, both of which are the best in the NBA.
Given Grimes’ defensive excellence, a bigger sign of his impact on the team has been the team’s turnaround on defense since he’s become a starter. New York is giving up just 107.1 points per game over that game span, which is second-best in the NBA behind the Cleveland Cavaliers. They are also holding opponents to a 45.1% field goal percentage, which is third-best in the league.
However, with Grimes out on Wednesday, we saw that defense falter a bit.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau added Immanuel Quickley, another strong perimeter defender, to the starting lineup, but Grimes has 20 pounds on Quickley and is able to switch onto bigger players in a way that Quickley isn’t. That makes Grimes a valuable asset in helping with rotations when the Knicks are scrambling on defense.
Still, the Knicks’ defensive issues were more on the interior on Wednesday. They simply had no answer for Pascal Siakam. The Raptors’ power forward had 52 points on 17-of-25 from the floor and 16-of-18 from the free-throw line. He beat Randle and Robinson one-on-one. He beat double teams. It didn’t matter what the Knicks did, he beat it.
However, Siakam’s success also highlights a larger defensive issue for the Knicks which is the lack of a physical forward defender. Randle has made strides this year, but his defense is inconsistent, and Barrett is still an average defender at best.
All of the best Knicks’ defenders are guards, like Grimes, Quickley, and Miles McBride, or rim protectors like Mitchell Robinson. When a team uses a smaller lineup, as the Raptors did, which features long forwards like Siakam and O.G. Anunoby, the Knicks are at a disadvantage.
This was the role that many fans thought the 6’8″ Cam Reddish would thrive in. In fact, many believed Reddish should have been entrusted with minutes on Wednesday given the matchup. His length and athleticism on the perimeter would have likely been a better matchup on Siakam than Randle.
Yet, instead of using Reddish, Thibodeau added Derrick Rose back into the rotation for eight meaningless minutes, which showcases the same issue for the Knicks: they desperately need a defensive-minded forward off of the bench.
While Obi Toppin has made strides as a defender, he’s not quite ready to be tasked with being a shutdown defender for a hybrid forward like Siakam. With Toppin hurt, the Knicks turned to Jarrett Sims and Isaiah Hartenstein for key minutes off the bench on Wednesday, and it was not good. In fact, when it comes to Hartenstein, it was a disaster.
The Knicks’ backup center had the worst plus/minus on the team at -16 and was a liability on the defensive glass. New York had been the best defensive-rebounding team in the league over the previous eight-game stretch, but they allowed Toronto to grab 16 offensive rebounds.
Hartenstein appeared to be a little too slow-footed to hang with Siakam and has a tendency to be bullied on the defensive glass. Given the improvements that Toppin has made and also the strength and athleticism that Sims has shown as a rim runner and defender, it’s fair to wonder where Hartenstein fits on this Knicks team.
The veteran was acquired in the offseason to be a stretch big man for the second unit, but with Obi Toppin showing improved range from beyond the arc, and the Knicks exclusively playing Hartenstein with smaller shooters like Quickley and Grimes, his floor-spacing simply doesn’t fit what the Knicks need in their second unit, especially with the team now being as defensive-minded as it is.
A bigger wing defender like Jae Crowder or Bruce Brown could be a key piece for the New York bench, allowing them to match up better with small-ball offenses like what Toronto threw at them last night.
Given that the Knicks just signed Hartenstein to a two-year deal, it’s unlikely that they get rid of him. However, the team has removed Reddish and Evan Fournier, two recent additions, from the rotation entirely, so cutting back on Hartenstein’s minutes could be possible if the team is able to acquire a versatile forward defender at the trade deadline.
Even with the loss, this Knicks team showed fight in battling back from an early deficit. They have an identity centered around energy and hard-nosed defense that they now need to build around. With a couple of tweaks or some extra pieces in place, they could make things interesting come playoff time.