A lot of Knicks’ chatter over the last couple of days has centered around RJ Barrett being benched for the last 12 minutes of Tuesday’s loss to the Knicks. In fact, I covered it in detail here. However, the former 3rd overall pick not playing at the end of games is only one in a myriad of reasons New York has been a disaster in the fourth quarter this season.
While the fourth-quarter defense hasn’t been great, it’s New York’s offense in the final frame that is holding this team back.
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On the season, the Knicks rank 28th in the NBA in fourth-quarter points per game. According to NBA.com, they are also 28th in fourth-quarter field goal percentage, 29th in fourth-quarter three-point shooting percentage, 27th in fourth-quarter free throw percentage, 29th in fourth-quarter assists, and 24th in fourth-quarter plus/minus.
A key reason for their fourth-quarter offensive struggles is the prevalence of isolation sets. Earlier in the season I covered how Julius Randle has a troubling tendency to devolve into isolation sets late in games and how his points per possession and scoring efficiency out of isolation are both below average.
Yet, Tom Thibodeau continues to allow Randle to run isolation plays at the end of games.
The Knicks run isolation at the 5th-highest rate of any team in the NBA; however, they are just 12th in the league in points per possession and 13th in effective field goal percentage out of isolation.
Tuesday’s loss was just another prime example. Coming out of a timeout, Thibodeau drew up a play that appeared to have Randle in isolation on the wing against Anthony Davis. Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes, and Isaiah Hartenstein had completely cleared to the other side of the court, and Jalen Brunson was acting as a safety valve at the top of the three-point line, but there was no other action on the play.
LeBron James came over to double-team and still Randle took a contested shot in the final seconds.
Another angle of LeBron James and Anthony Davis defending Julius Randle on the final possession of regulation before the Knicks-Lakers game went to overtime where LA won pic.twitter.com/ZDSMAxhhY4
— New York Basketball (@NBA_NewYork) February 1, 2023
After the game, Thibodeau tried to explain the play and said: “There were three options on that play. So they have to read the defense,” Thibodeau said. “LeBron [James] was on Jalen and [Anthony] Davis was on Julius, and depending on what they’re doing, they could go either way. So there were options on that play. That’s why it’s set up the way it is.”
However, with three players not moving on the other side of the court, it’s unclear what the options actually were. This has been an issue for Thibodeau all season.
The website Shot Quality is a model that “predicts shot outcomes by evaluating the quality of each attempt. Each shot is graded on a 0-100 percent scale, which represents the likelihood the shot results in a made basket, and then is multiplied by the amount of points attempted to get the ShotQuality value.”
On the season, Thibodeau ranks 27th in the NBA (out of 30 coaches) in shot quality per possession after a timeout. That means that, even with added time and the chance to draw up options for two strong scorers, Thibodeau has been consistently unable to manufacture good looks. Interestingly, Brooklyn Nets coach Jacque Vaughn actually leads the league in shot quality per possession after a timeout.
Another concerning trend for Thibodeau that has been costing New York at the end of games is the heavy minutes he repeatedly asks his starters to play.
Since Quentin Grimes entered the starting lineup, the Knicks have four players in the top 35 in the league in minutes played per game, with all of Randle, Brunson, Grimes, and Barrett averaging 35 minutes or more a night. Randle and Brunson actually rank 2nd and 3rd in the NBA in minutes played per night, and no other team has two players inside the top 10. Only Toronto has four players inside the top 35.
On Tuesday night, even with RJ Barrett benched, Thibodeau played Quickley and Hartstein each for the final 20+ minutes of the game, refusing to stagger rotations or allow his key players to get a moment of rest.
At one point, Thibodeau put Obi Toppin in for Julius Randle with 6:51 left to go in the fourth, but then he immediately subbed Randle back in for Toppin after just 58 seconds. It’s a move that makes no sense for a number of reasons, one of which is that Obi Toppin is playing some of the best basketball of his career.
He’s shooting 37% from beyond the arc and has a 20% defensive rebounding rate, which are both career-highs. In fact, he has the second-best three-point shooting percentage of any player in the Knicks’ rotation, and despite the team being desperate for shooting, he can’t seem to see the court in meaningful minutes.
In fact, the two things that the Knicks really are lacking in the fourth quarter are attributes that Toppin provides.
Defensively, the Knicks rank 1st in the NBA in an opponent’s field goal percentage in the fourth quarter, 13th in opponent’s three-point shooting percentage, and 14th in opponent’s points scored. However, New York’s two biggest defensive issues late in games are that they are getting beat on the boards (they rank 28th in opponent’s fourth-quarter rebounding rate) and they are allowing too many threes (they rank 27th in opponent’s three-pointers made in the fourth quarter).
We’ve already covered why the Knicks’ defensive scheme leaves them vulnerable to three-point barrages from the opposition, but the rebounding rates are a concern as well.
The team has taken some strides to correct these defensive issues, which is why you see Immanuel Quickley playing late in games instead of RJ Barrett, who is the Knicks’ worst defensive regular by almost every metric. Yet, the rebounding struggles are a concern, especially with Mitchell Robinson out.
If you search by rebounding rate and not total rebounds, so as not to punish players who don’t play a lot of minutes, Robinson is the Knicks’ best fourth-quarter rebounder with a 17.8% rebounding rate. Julius Randle, Isaiah Hartenstein, Jericho Sims, and Obi Toppin round out the top five and all have double-digit fourth-quarter rebounding rates. However, Quentin Grimes, Jalen Brunson, and Quickley have all been below-average rebounders in the final frame.
Since Toppin averages only 4.2 fourth-quarter minutes a game over the last month and two of Hartenstein, Robinson, and Sims are never on the court at the same time, that means the Knicks only have two strong rebounders on the floor to close out games.
It’s just another way that the roster management and coaching have gotten in the team’s own way. Until they can hold themselves accountable and correct these issues, it’s hard to see the late-game struggles improving.
For more Knicks coverage, like this RJ Barrett article, visit amNY Sports
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