The worst reputation you can have as a team is that you are easy to play against. The Knicks may have that reputation right now around the league. The most recent evidence was how the Magic walked into The Garden as the fifth-worst shooting team in the NBA and the fourth-worst three-point shooting team and, from the very first possession, got very comfortable en route to a 15-for-31 performance from downtown.
From that first shot that Jodie Meeks drilled from three — his first of six — the Magic went from being a lottery-bound also-ran on the second game of a back-to-back to a group that flexed its muscles and played downhill all game.
“You can’t give a team hope,” a frustrated Jeff Hornacek said.
The Knicks gave them a lot more than hope. Meeks made three of four from downtown in the first quarter and by halftime he had 17 points, and the Magic had made 9-of-15 from three and put up 67 points. The Knicks had 59 points, which is also great for the half, but once again their offense wasn’t good enough to overcome the defense.
“We were content to exchange points with them,” Hornacek said.
Magic coach Frank Vogel, who put his team through a harsh film session after a bad loss in Indiana, summed it up: “I felt like we played harder than the Knicks.”
On your home floor, even without Kristaps Porzingis (sore Achilles), that can’t be acceptable to anyone.
At halftime, there were some loud voices in the locker room. Assistant coach Jerry Sichting suggested that in his interview with Rebecca Haarlow. But Sichting also suggested the Knicks would come out with a better focus on defense.
There was, for a brief span, an improved effort. A pair of 24-second shot clock violations and the Knicks were within five points. The Garden came alive again. But missed shots led to dispirited defense and the deficit was into double-figures quickly.
Hornacek has been issuing subtle warnings about this all season. He often made references to conditioning as it relates to effort on defense.
“You should come into the locker room after the game and be dead tired,” he said. “That’s the way it should be. If you come in the locker room and you’re not huffing and puffing and tired, then you didn’t play hard enough.”
Carmelo Anthony added, “We have to want to do it.”
But Hornacek now wonders something that has to resonate in the front office: “Maybe they’re just not capable of it.”
Which leads us to the obvious next question: do you go with a lineup change to shake up the team and find better and consistent defensive effort? Is it time, as we asked in the previous blog, to adjust the starting lineup?
Or, as Hornacek said, does this team just not have the personnel to have the stingy, defensive-minded identity he hoped it would become?
The three-point defense was ranked 7th best in the NBA, but the eye test tells us it has been a bigger issue. In fact, over the last five games the Knicks have allowed 37% shooting from downtown, but more notably is that they’ve given up 13.2 three-pointers made per game.
And, as it goes in this game, when they start to desperately run out on shooters, the middle opens up and it’s a layup drill.
This is less about scheme and more about personality. Hornacek continually insists the Knicks need to take more pride in their personal matchups and not always look for help and switches. This brings us back to identity and personnel and, as Hornacek asked, are they capable?
There’s not much time to reflect on this, as January will keep throwing games at them. After today’s practice, the Knicks have a home-and-home with the Milwaukee Bucks, who are young, long and athletic. The Knicks hope to have Porzingis back for Wednesday’s game.
Will Hornacek make changes by then? That will be interesting to see. We’ll have all the details on Knicks Game Night starting at 7 p.m. on MSG.