The Knicks went into Thursday night’s game without Jalen Brunson, RJ Barrett, and Obi Toppin. However, they were facing an 11-23 Spurs team without its second-leading scorer, so it seemed like a convenient matchup to pull off a shorthanded loss. Until it wasn’t.
New York came out flat, looking like they hadn’t fully recovered from their heartbreaking overtime loss to the Mavericks on Tuesday. They gave up 38 first-quarter points to a team ranked 22nd in the league in points per game and 27th in true shooting percentage.
Despite a few offensive runs and a comeback attempt early in the fourth quarter, New York never really made it a game, and the defensive effort remained an issue throughout the contest.
The Spurs shot 51.1% from the field and 39.3% from beyond the arc in the contest. They also out-rebounded the Knicks 48-38, including grabbing 14 offensive rebounds. In many respects, it simply seemed like the Spurs were the more assertive and aggressive team.
Part of that could be due to the way head coach Tom Thibodeau managed his rotation.
Two days after playing each of Julius Randle, Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes, and Miles McBride for 45+ minutes in the loss to the Mavericks, Thibodeau had each of them on the court for 31+ minutes against the Spurs.
The impact could be seen on the defensive end.
The rotations were not as sharp. The Knicks were often a step too slow to the ball, and the Spurs got too many open looks. Normally elite perimeter defenders like Grimes and McBride weren’t their reliable selves, and Mitchell Robinson, who also played 36 minutes against the Mavericks, was almost non-existent on Thursday, posting just six rebounds and no points in 28 minutes.
While some of the poor performance can be excused by the absence of Barrett and Quickley, depth is supposed to be the calling card of this Knicks team. Without a true star, the narrative is that the Knicks’ strength is having a deep group of players with specific skill sets as shooters or lockdown defenders. This is meant to create a balance that can bridge the gap with teams that are led by some of the league’s best players.
On Thursday, it couldn’t even bridge the gap with a team that was tanking.
A factor in the depth failing to materialize is that Thibodeau has kept his rotation rigidly kept short.
Injuries and poor performance by veterans Evan Fournier and Derrick Rose forced Thibodeau to go to a nine-man rotation early in December, and the team responded with an eight-game winning streak. However, when injuries hit now, the head coach kept himself locked into his same nine-man rotation with a familiar set of names.
On Thursday, the Knicks used a nine-man rotation, but since they were bringing players off of the bench who haven’t played many minutes in weeks, Thibodeau was reluctant to use them for long stretches. As a result, the regular bench players who were forced into starting roles, like McBride and Quickley, were asked to play extensive minutes and carry a major workload.
It worked for some of them, as Quickley had a tremendous offensive game, scoring 36 points with seven rebounds and seven assists. However, others, like McBride and Grimes seemed to be running on fumes. Two days after an explosive offensive performance, Grimes shot just 1-10 from the field while he and McBride both finished with nine points. Each player looked like they could have used a break but one rarely ever came.
The other issue besides the Knicks’ sudden lack of depth was the choices that Thibodeau made with the rotation.
With Barrett out and the perimeter defense struggling in the first quarter, Thibodeau could have gone to his only other small forward and brought Cam Reddish off the bench. Reddish had been one of the team’s better defenders early in the season and had the size to stifle wing players like Keldon Johnson.
Instead, Thibodeau opted to bring in Evan Fournier, one of the Knicks’ worst defenders, and the Spurs immediately went on a 9-0 run.
While Fournier was able to knock down some shots in his minutes, the bench unit that featured Fournier, Derrick Rose, and Isaiah Hartenstein was a disaster for New York. Hartenstein, again, was one of the worst players on the court for New York, adding little on offense to go along with subpar defense and finishing with four points, five rebounds, and a -17 plus/minus in 15 minutes.
Yet, despite Hartenstein’s failure to produce much at all over the last month, Thibodeau keeps him on a set regimen of minutes and seems to refuse to play Jericho Sims more or Reddish at all. With the poor performance of the bench and the defensive struggles of the starters, it’s inexcusable that Reddish wasn’t used in this game.
The common excuse is that the Knicks didn’t want to risk an injury as they seek to offload Reddish in a trade. However, the team just traded a first-round pick for the small forward less than a year ago and wing defense is one of his strengths. Even when he didn’t live up to expectations in Atlanta, he showed himself as a more versatile option than players like Hartenstein and Fournier.
The Knicks are also in desperate need of a versatile wing defender on the bench. Rumors swirl about them trying to acquire somebody like Jae Crowder to fill that exact role; yet, they have a 23-year-old who could become that answer and the head coach refuses to play him because, allegedly, he never wanted the team to trade for the player in the first place.
That disconnect between Thibodeau and the front office is inexcusable. The team used an elite asset – a first-round pick – to acquire a young player who filled a need. The opportunity has presented itself where the team could use the exact type of player that Reddish is, but he remains fixed to the bench and the Knicks keep losing games.
It’s that rigidity of thought in Thibodeau that has also gotten the Knicks in trouble when it comes to defensive approach. We covered earlier this week how teams know what the Knicks are doing and that the Knicks don’t make in-game adjustments to counter.
Thibodeau should be commended for helping young players like Barrett, Grimes, and Quickley emerge in the way they have this year. However, the team may have hit a wall in terms of how far they can go unless their head coach is willing to adapt his approach.
With the Knicks teetering in the uncomfortable limbo between contender and rebuilding team, they need to decide soon whether the current approach possesses a vision that can get this team over the hump or if they need to bring in something with a new outlook.
When you lose to tanking teams, you can no longer just rest on the status quo.