Defense Haunts Knicks on Christmas Day

CELTICS 119, KNICKS 114

Christmas Day already included hearing me try to imitate Kristaps Porzingis’ grandmother singing his praises. That didn’t go well. Then I forgot my hat for the postgame show. That went even worse.

And my Blue Christmas was complete when the Celtics celebrated a win on The Garden┬ácourt after a frustrating, maddening game that showed the ghosts of Christmas’ past — defense — still haunt this team.

Remember in the 90s — an era so many of us remember fondly — how the Knicks used to win grinders on a consistent basis? Every game was a grinder. There was nothing easy. It was blue-collar, gritty and physical.

These Knicks talked a lot in the preseason about a return to those days and that mentality, but what we’re seeing is a team that thrives in high-scoring games but struggles in those old-school, street-fight games.

And when the Celtics are on the court, you can expect the latter.

Sure, the Knicks had a chance to steal this game with an 11-2 run that tied the score at 112 with just over a minute to go. But ask the players and they’ll tell you they didn’t deserve a Christmas miracle. Marcus Smart’s corner three, which Jeff Hornacek called “the killer,” was a fitting ending to a day of scrambling, chasing Knicks defense that gave up 92 points over the last three quarters.

“It’s not only the end part,” Kristaps Porzingis┬ásaid. “It’s the whole game where we can get better.”

The issue isn’t difficult to identify. Just ask the players:

“There were miscommunications on the defensive end,” Carmelo Anthony said.

“We didn’t communicate while we were out there,” Derrick Rose said.

“We need better communication and all the details,” Porzingis said.

It seemed like the Knicks were locked in during the first quarter, as they held Boston to 22 points on 39% shooting. After defensive starts (giving up 30+ points in six straight first quarters) were an issue that we pointed out here, the last three games have seen the Knicks hold their opponent under 30 points in the first quarter.

But when the Celtics ramped up their effort level and started getting to offensive rebounds and loose balls to generate extra possessions, the Knicks could not match it. Boston then got hot from downtown, nailing 7 of 14 from three in the second quarter. The game turned there and the Knicks were climbing uphill the rest of the day.

It wasn’t until that late push that the Knicks appeared to have a chance to win the game. With the need to get one more stop and the score tied at 112, the defense broke down. Three players locked in on the ball and allowed for a kick-out pass to a wide-open Smart in front of his own bench. That might be the most comfortable place for a visiting player on an NBA floor.

The Knicks defense was out of position as it over-reacted to the painted area. It’s been a problem for this team all season.

Smart is just a 27% shooter from three, but it was an easy catch-and-shoot rhythm situation. It was also just minutes after his lip was bloodied by Rose on a drive to the basket.

Smart is an example of the Celtics’ toughness. Their defense is rugged and relentless and they took the Knicks out of their comfort zone. The result was 17 turnovers and just 11 assists. They took away the wings and forced the Knicks into one-on-one situations.

“You have to make quick decisions,” Hornacek said. His team often did not do that and the offense looked clunky and out-of-sync.

And yet it still managed to score 114 points, so let’s not get too distracted by scoring or possessions. This game wasn’t lost on offense.

Sure, after the Smart three, Melo failed to recognize the defense quickly and over-dribbled on the possession for a turnover.

But that was just one play. If the Knicks could improve their defense, they wouldn’t be lamenting losses like this or the one in Phoenix, which was very similar. They lost to a tougher team that played aggressive defense and the Knicks were not able to respond with toughness and defense of their own.

Bottom line is, Hornacek’s team needs to learn how to win ugly.

The Knicks take to the road to finish out 2016, starting Wednesday in Atlanta. We’ll have Knicks Game Night at 7 p.m. on MSG.