A road trip that started with so much promise ended with an “Eh.” That’s how Jeff Hornacek described a 2-3 finish to the five-game jaunt to the West that ended with a loss in Denver, where the Knicks haven’t won in 10 years.
For Hornacek, there are big-picture issues to deal with beyond a lost opportunity on the road. It’s an alarming trend on the trip — that, really, has been an issue for most of the season — that after 27 games is less of a concerning trend and more of an ugly truth about the team.
On every game of this trip, the Knicks allowed their opponents to score 30 or more points in the first quarter. In fact, if you go back to the Cavaliers game at The Garden 10 days ago, that’s six straight games in which the opponent topped 30 in the opening quarter of the game.
Overall this season, the Knicks’ Defensive Rating in the first quarter is 109.2, which is the sixth-highest in the NBA.
In Denver, the Knicks allowed the Nuggets to score 33 points — 22 in the paint — and take an 11-point lead. Once their rhythm was established, the Knicks had no answers on the defensive end and they were dominated in transition (21 fast break points), off turnovers (23 points allowed) and in the painted area (68 points in the paint).
“Everybody just drove right by us,” Hornacek said.
It was clearly a point-of-attack issue, which led to help from the bigs who were not then aided by the help of their alert teammates. That allowed someone like Kenneth Faried, who lost his starting position and was rumored to be on the trading block, to come in and dominate with 25 points on dunks, putbacks and tips.
“We didn’t get the effort tonight,” Hornacek lamented.
This is a coach who subtly begs for hard, message-sending fouls and the Knicks rarely deliver them in games such as these. Instead, the fouls are generally soft and in Denver it resulted in 36 points at the foul line.
That is a toughness factor that Hornacek learned playing for Jerry Sloan. That is a toughness factor that Kurt Rambis, who is in charge of the defense, played with throughout his career. It’s a toughness factor that several players talked about before the season.
It’s an attitude that Joakim Noah was expected to bring to the team. Noah played just 11 minutes in the game and again struggled to be that defensive anchor, while also continuing his issues finishing at the rim. Kyle O’Quinn, who has been excellent in his role off the bench, curiously played just 7 minutes in the game while rookie Willy Hernangomez — playing against his brother, Juan, with his family watching in Spain — logged 28 minutes and had a strong statline of 17 points and 10 rebounds. But he spent more time with help defense than he did controlling the paint.
Now the question is this: is that on him or is that on the defense as a whole, which begins with stopping the ball on dribble penetration?
And just where is this team’s collective determination at the defensive end?
Let’s get back to Noah in that regard. Signed to a four-year, $72 million contract, he was brought in to replace Robin Lopez as a defensive anchor and a good passer out of the post. But Noah had to endure hamstring and ankle issues early in the season, and appears as if he has lost the energy that once famously effervesced from him during his prime years with the Bulls. Noah still does a lot of communicating on the court and even from the bench when he’s not playing. It’s not that his mind doesn’t know what to do, it’s that his body doesn’t seem to be able to do it right now.
At one point during the third quarter, Noah’s frustration showed when he stormed out of a huddle with an angered expression. As the players broke the huddle, Hornacek could be seen throwing his white board and marker to the floor.
After the game, Hornacek was asked if he needed to make personnel changes with the starting unit — with a nod toward Noah — as a result of the poor starts defensively. While it’s not fair to pin them all on Noah, the numbers don’t lie.
Let’s start with the most important stat in the game: wins and losses. When Noah starts, the Knicks are 10-13.
More notably, Noah is -46 on the season in 475 minutes. Of those minutes, 169 have come in the first quarter. He is -34 in that time. And finally, he has a Defensive Rating of 114.3 in the first quarter this season. That is the sixth-highest among qualifying starting centers in the NBA.
But, again, is that a result of Noah’s ineffectiveness or the more a collective issue with the starting five? Perhaps the better question is this: in an NBA that is now playing faster, is the Knicks starting five athletic enough to keep up? Are they tough enough to grind and slow teams down?
While Hornacek acknowledged the need to take a long, hard look at the issues starting games, he suggested it was not yet time to make changes. The team was without Derrick Rose for 2 3/4 of these final three games of the road trip.
The Knicks expect to have Rose back in the lineup for Tuesday’s homecoming game against the Pacers. We will have Knicks Game Night at 7 p.m. on MSG Network.