Noah’s Back, Kanter’s Not As Knicks Drop To .500

Blazers 103, Knicks 91

1. While listening to Jeff Hornacek‘s post game media address, I immediately thought of one of Herb Brooks’ memorable lines to his team in the movie, “Miracle.” It was the famous “Again” scene.

“You think you can win on talent alone? Gentlemen, you don’t HAVE enough talent to win on talent alone.”

Hornacek essentially said the same thing when assessing what he called a “low energy” game by his team against Portland.

“We are not the team that is going to come out there, play and then turn it up later,” he said. “We have to do it from tip-off … We can’t think we are anything other than a team that has to go out there and play all 48 minutes of a game.”

The Knicks have now lost three straight and are 10-10. It’s still a better record than anyone predicted before the season (especially after the 0-3 start), but when you consider they were looking at an 11-7 record up 17 points early to a bad Hawks team on Friday, to be .500 right now is a disappointment.

Once again, Enes Kanter‘s absence was felt. He missed a third straight game with back spasms and you can tell it’s driving him mad. He went out and sat on the bench for the second half. He said he will try to practice Tuesday with the hopes to be cleared to play Wednesday night against the Miami Heat.

2. Give credit to Portland for getting after it defensively. This is a team that was finishing up a six-game road trip and already won four games. Often you will see a team get complacent and the getaway game is always a coach’s nightmare. But the Trail Blazers worked the entire night and the Knicks offense sputtered badly. They had just five assists at the half and only 13 for the entire game.

We’ve mentioned several times that you can’t take for granted that the Knicks won 10 games out of 14 with 34-year-old Jarrett Jack as the starting point guard and a 19-year-old Frank Ntilikina as the backup playing the bulk of the minutes in the fourth quarter. In a league where the point guard position is the most critical and most difficult to defend, the Knicks had to know it would catch up to them eventually.

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Teams are pressuring the point guards handling the ball because neither Jack nor Ntilikina possess the one-on-one skills to break down a defense and get to the rim. As a result, the offense is slowing down and there is far less flow. It leads to a clunkier offense that isn’t getting easy shots or open looks like we saw earlier in the season before team’s had a scouting report on the Knicks.

Jack has done an admirable job filling the role as starting point guard, but he struggled enough against Damian Lillard that Hornacek had to go to a third point guard, Ramon Sessions, for a while until he re-inserted Ntilikina for the remainder of the game.

The team entered the season knowing there was a priority on finding a good fit at that position. There were calls made to Phoenix for Eric Bledsoe, but the asking price was too high. They have Trey Burke in Westchester and teams can start signing G-League players to 10-day contracts starting Jan. 5. In the meantime, the search continues to find someone who can help create offense from that position.

3. Lillard loves The Garden. He acknowledged in his walk-off interview with MSG Network’s Rebecca Haarlow that it’s his favorite gym in the NBA. Lillard is that type of player who thrives on the big stage and craves the lights. But what makes him special is how classy his game is and how easy it is to appreciate, even as an opponent.

He put up 17 of his 32 points in a spectacular third quarter that looked so easy for him.

Shouldn’t he be a bigger star? What’s amazing is that here is one of the most talented point guards in the NBA who has a great personality, and is a talented rapper, and he’s gone three straight years without an All-Star appearance.

Is this because he plays in Portland, where his games are rarely seen on national television and on much too late for viewers in the Eastern and even Central time zones? Is this because he is in the conference loaded with superstar guards like Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and James Harden?

And with the Trail Blazers, will he ever have a team good enough to contend with the Warriors, Rockets, Spurs and Thunder in the West?

None of this will affect his financial value. That’s already set, which is why he’s locked into Portland through his prime years. Lillard signed a five-year, $151 million contract extension in the summer of 2016, so he’s certainly paid like a superstar.

But when does he get the recognition around the league as one of the best players in the game?

Where would you rank him among the top point guards in the NBA? I have him fourth, behind Curry, Westbrook and Kyrie Irving. He and John Wall are close and, no, I haven’t forgotten about Isaiah Thomas, I just need to see him play this season to figure where he fits after the hip injury.

4. Joakim Noah had a moment on The Garden floor and, to be honest, despite playing less than 3 minutes in his season debut, there was one defensive sequence that could be used in the film room. Wally and I showed it on the Wally Wall in the post game show.

The former Defensive Player of the Year may not be as mobile or athletic as he once was, but he understands angles and positioning and that was on display during that possession we highlighted. Sure, it was a relatively insignificant possession in the grand scheme of the game, but the point is to show what the bigs need to do to help the guards in pick-and-roll coverage. Noah put on a clinic and the Knicks got the stop. As he screamed and pumped his fist, you could see how much it meant to him to be back out there.

Over the last few years, the Knicks have had some bigs who were pretty good in pick-and-roll defense, from Tyson Chandler to Robin Lopez. Noah was once one of the best in the game, but injuries took away a lot of the quickness he had that made him so effective. If anything, he did prove to have good muscle memory in his brief debut.

“For not playing in a while — we wanted to get him out there and use that energy — he did a nice job,” Hornacek said. “He drove the ball to the hole and got a bucket. Like I’ve said before, Jo has played great in preseason and practices and he got an opportunity to get a few minutes in there tonight.”

Now comes the question: Does he deserve more? We’ve already made note of the difference-maker that Kanter has become with his energy, effort and toughness alone. Can Noah provide some of that — and, of course, his defensive foundation — off the bench behind Kanter?

That would mean cutting the minutes of Kyle O’Quinn, who has had a strong start to the season as the backup center. It would also mean Willy Hernangomez would be buried once again on the bench.

In regards to Hernangomez, he may want to consider a G-League stint. It was hard watching him once again get picked on defensively by the opponent. He looked demoralized out there and teammates were trying to talk him through it, but even they started getting frustrated with him.

Perhaps a few games in Westchester, with a focus on pick-and-roll coverage, footwork and learning to anticipate plays rather than react to them, would do him some good.

5. Is this a slump for Kristaps Porzingis or is this another part of his education on how to be a star when teams now game-plan specifically to stop you? This was a guy averaging 30.4 points per game after the first 11 games of the season and shooting 51% from the field and 41% from three-point range. Those kinds of numbers will put you on everyone’s radar.

But over the last 7 games, KP’s efficiency has dropped exponentially. He’s averaging 21.7 points per game, which is still a very good scoring rate, but he’s shooting just 37.5% from the field and 37.8% from downtown.

This is exactly what he had been preparing for all summer with his offseason workouts: Endurance. KP displayed an unstoppable arsenal of moves and is still showing the ability to get his shot off against any defender. But some of those tough shots he was making in the first few weeks of the season are not going in lately. Is that a credit to the defense or just simply being off the mark?

We are at a point where fatigue set in last season for him and that was an area he was determined to improve during the offseason.

Last season after 18 games, KP averaged 21.4 points on 49% shooting and 40% from three. From that point until the end of the season, his numbers dipped to 16.9 points on 43% shooting and 33% from beyond the arc.

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