Without Kanter, Knicks Downed by Hawks

Hawks 116, Knicks 104

1. Let’s start with a positive: This was a good game if you are Enes Kanter‘s agent.

The hard-working big man was sorely missed and his teammates each referenced his absence as a factor in losing to the team with the worst record in the NBA after building an early 17-point lead.

Courtney Lee, for one, lamented a few extra rebounds and loose balls, which are a staple of Kanter’s game. The Knicks were not the presence on the boards they usually are and the Hawks benefited from so many extra possessions (13 offensive rebounds, 24 second-chance points).

Kanter said he woke up Friday morning with back spasms and “could hardly walk.” He actually said he was “crawling on the locker room floor” and “crying like a baby” and anyone who has ever dealt with back spasms just nodded. Back spasms are the most maddening of injuries because you feel like your entire body locks up like a seized engine.

Knicks fan Thomas Hanna tweeted at us a picture of the Teeter Inversion Table and recommended Kanter try it. Those infomercials are mesmerizing. The idea of hanging upside-down and feeling your vertebrae stretch like one of those flexible straws is appealing.

He says he’s a game-time decision for Saturday night’s thoughtfully-scheduled jaunt in Houston, where the Rockets have been hanging out (upside-down or right-side-up) all week and haven’t played since Wednesday night.

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Kanter tried to take the blame for the loss because of his sudden back spasms, which seemed odd. But it was hard not to see how much Kanter’s absence was a factor.

Remember, he has an opt-out after this season to become a free agent. He absolutely loves playing in New York and there’s no doubt he has quickly emerged as a heart-and-soul player that provides a long-lost toughness to the team. A game like this shows just how valuable he is to the bottom line.

2. Let’s talk more about the center position: Kyle O’Quinn started and had little impact in 23 minutes, while Willy Hernangomez was given ample opportunity to get some playing time and make a case for more. Instead, he may have provided a window into Jeff Hornacek‘s reasoning as to why the All-Rookie team selection has been out of the rotation for most of the season.

Hernangomez has a knack for compiling stats. He had 6 points and 7 rebounds in 18:31. But the bigger issues involve his lack of defensive presence in the paint and defending the pick-and-roll, especially against bigs who pop out to the perimeter. Hernangomez often was caught giving up corner threes.

It has to be tough for a young player who is getting intermittent burn to suddenly have a night where he gets a regular rotation spot and is challenged to help stop a lightning quick guard like Dennis Schroder. But this is where the development factor comes in for the coaching staff: are they doing enough with him in practice and in film? Better yet, is HE doing enough?

We’ve seen Ron Baker agree to a few G-League stints to get valuable game-time experience. Should Hernangomez consider going to Westchester for a few games just to get into some live action and focus on his footwork and intensity at the defensive end?

3. Something is going to have to change with this defense. It appears to be an issue in closing out against three-point shooters, but isn’t it hard to believe a team that works as hard as this group works is just simply too lazy to get out on shooters?

It seems like the Knicks’ biggest issue in defending the three (they give up the most threes per game in the NBA) comes from the fact that they have so many players crashing into the painted area to help stop dribble penetration. With so much movement on defense, all it takes is good passing to find the open man. That open man generally winds up in the corner.

One day perhaps Frank Ntilikina will be able to control the point of attack with his defense, but the 19-year-old isn’t there yet. Ntilikina picked up three first-half fouls and only played 15 minutes in the game.

4. The Hawks (4-15) have been a bad team but as we talked about in the pregame show, they do two things that rank among the best in the NBA: shoot threes and cause turnovers. Both of those areas helped beat the Knicks.

Atlanta made 13 of 31 from downtown and actually hit 11 of 24 in the final three quarters. That Marco Belinelli three with just under four minutes to go was a killer. Knicks were down five and Schroder missed a jumper, but Dewayne Dedmon tapped the rebound back to Belinelli for an open three. You had to think if Kanter is on the floor, he comes away with that board.

Then there were the turnovers. After a 39-point first quarter, you ignore the six turnovers they committed at the start. Up 8 at the half, you say the 11 turnovers has to be corrected. Five more in the third and it’s officially an issue. They finished with 20 turnovers in the game — Atlanta forces 16.4 a game, fifth-most in the league — and it yielded 19 points.

Here’s the catch: normally you blame turnovers on whoever is running the offense. It’s got to be point guard play, but Jarrett Jack (14 assists) only had two turnovers in 32:47. Three other starters — Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr. and O’Quinn — combined for 10 of the 20 turnovers.

5. The Knicks are now 1-5 on the road. I’m in no mood to look up where that ranks among worst starts to a season. Do you really want to know? No. So let’s just acknowledge it’s pretty bad. And their next road game is in Houston on Saturday night. Fun.

So what’s the problem?

It seemed like they had it solved early on with that great start to the game, but with little energy in the arena, the Knicks did not play with the same emotion we have seen from them at The Garden. Still, three starters (Porzingis, Lee and Hardaway) scored over 20 points and another (Jack) had a double-double.

What you usually see in the NBA is that bench players seem to thrive at home and struggle on the road. Reserves generally feed off the energy of the home crowd. In this game, the Hawks bench — I defy you to name one player other than Belinelli that you’ve heard of — outscored the Knicks bench, 37-16. In the second half, the Atlanta reserves outscored the Knicks reserves 18-2.

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