Lee & Thomas Providing the Impetus

5 Thoughts on the Win:

1. As the Knicks dribbled out the shot clock on their final possession and the crowd stood to cheer the win, Walt “Clyde” Frazier lamented missing by one point a pizza discount promotion for those in attendance. The Knicks did not get to the 100-point mark for a second straight game and Kenny Albert, the human sports encyclopedia, shared a fact only Kenny Albert would know: Wednesday happened to be the 70th anniversary of the very first game in franchise history that the Knicks scored 100 points.

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Kenny is a treasure. But I have to ask: Do kids have any idea what an encyclopedia is?

Maybe it’s better put to say Kenny is the Amazon Alexa of sports facts.

As for the game, perhaps it’s more notable to say the Knicks didn’t let the Grizzlies get to 90 after they hit 32 points in the first quarter. This wasn’t the most entertaining offensive performance — most games against Memphis aren’t — but the Knicks showed us they can grind it out and, more importantly, get after it on defense. They’re going to need to adopt that kind of mentality as a team if they want to make the most of this soft part of the schedule, even without Tim Hardaway Jr.

“We have a lot of winnable games ahead of us,” Kristaps Porzingis said.

And, as Jeff Hornacek stated, “Defense is really going to have to step up for us during this stretch.”

The challenge on Saturday night in Chicago — aside from winning on the road — is to make sure that defensive mentality is present from the opening tip. That hasn’t been the case recently.

Over the last three games, the Knicks have given up over 30 points in each first quarter, with opponents scoring an average of 33 points per first quarter. That’s a trend we saw all too often last season and it needs to stop.

2. It was a little surprising to see the Knicks come out so soft on defense to start the game when Hornacek, I thought, started what looked like a defensively solid starting five. After going two games with rookie Daymean Dotson at the two in Hardaway Jr.’s place, Hornacek moved Courtney Lee up to the two and inserted Lance Thomas at the three.

Thomas, as I mentioned in the pregame Knicks Fix segment on MSG Networks, entered the game with the best Defensive Rating (DRtg) of any Knicks rotation player (102.9 points per 100 possessions). But in that first quarter, the Grizzlies came out like most opponents do: firing away from three-point range. They hit 5 of their first 7 threes and built a lead as big as 12 points. Chandler Parsons came into the game splashing the net with his soaking wet jumper and quickly put up 10 points in 5:27.

But the second quarter saw a much better intensity on defense by the Knicks, led by Thomas, who checked Parsons and turned the water off.

I want to give a lot of credit to Lance Thomas,” Enes Kanter said. “He just plays hard. I love his energy and what he brings to the team.”

Thomas knows he’s not going to produce a lot on the offensive end — though he did come up with a four-point play on a corner three and-one — so he embraces the role of the stopper and defensive tone-setter. He was out there barking out orders on the defensive end and fighting over screens, and giving up his body. These are subtle things that the defense-loving fan base certainly does notice.

“I love getting a stop,” he said.

Let’s see if that mentality can permeate throughout the team.

3. Porzingis returned after missing two-plus games with that scary ankle injury suffered a week prior against the Heat. Before the game, he declared his ankle 100 percent and obliterated a tissue with a few snot rockets, which prompted him to joke, “That proves I really did have an illness.”

You can hear in his voice he still has ‘a little bit of stuff left’ from the illness, but the ankle had recovered after a week where KP dedicated himself to getting treatment three times a day.

He moved really well and his shot looked good early in the game, but the Grizzlies only defensive gameplan was to not let KP beat them. So they threw doubles at him every time he touched the ball and was smothered by the long, athletic bigs like JaMychal Green and Jarell Martin.

After three quarters, KP was only 3-of-11 from the floor at the half, but here’s where his maturity showed: he stopped forcing shots and instead let his presence create space for others.

“These types of games, I don’t want to mess with our rhythm if we are playing well,” Porzingis said.

He still finished with 18 points, 5 rebounds, 1 block and 1 steal in 34 minutes. But it was good to see him not try to break the team concept just to get his numbers. He still almost got to 20 just from playing in the system.

Without Hardaway Jr., you could understand if Porzingis felt like he had to carry the team with his offense, but a big part of being a leader is recognizing that your presence on the court attracts so much attention that it opens up things for teammates such as Jarrett Jack (10 points, 10 assists), Kanter (12 points, 12 rebounds) and Michael Beasley (14 points off the bench).

4. And that brings us back to Courtney Lee, who put up 24 points, including 12 in that game-turning second quarter. Lee may become the most important player in the absence of Hardaway Jr. because he is showing the ability to make up for the lost offense. We’ve already known he can make an impact on defense.

Lee is averaging a career-high 13.1 points per game and has been one of the team’s best shooters. At 32 years old, he is having his best NBA season so far and the coaching staff is encouraging him to do more. They practically have to beg him to shoot and look for his shot more, and Hornacek’s guard-friendly system seems perfectly tailored for him.

You should see Wally Szcerbiak‘s eyes light up when he hears Hornacek saying he wants Lee to shoot more. Wally lived his basketball life with a perpetual green light.

Lee spent most of his career as a supporting role player, but over the last few weeks he’s starting to become more aggressive with his offense. In the last seven games, he’s averaging 17.9 points per game on a blazing hot 61.3 percent from the field. He’s made 50 percent of his threes over that time (12-of-24).

So, can he maintain his FG/3P/FT slash line on the season — 49.8%/46.5%/92.5% — while getting 12-15 shots per game during Hardaway Jr.’s absence?

According to Basketball Reference, Lee is the only player in the NBA with over 200 field goal attempts so far this season that is shooting over 49 percent from the field, over 45 percent from three and over 90 perecent from the free throw line.

5. The kids from the Netflix hit “Stranger Things” are having fun hanging out at The Garden. Earlier this week it was “Dustin” (Gaten Matorazzo) who sang the national anthem at the Rangers-Hurricanes game. On Wednesday night, “Lucas” (Caleb McLaughlin) was on Celebrity Row and took a picture on the court with a few players and came away with Enes Kanter’s game-worn sneakers.

Caleb McLaughlin, who plays Lucas on the hit Netflix series "Stranger Things" joins PTS to talk about his favorite Knicks players, his basketball skills, his dance moves and the 80's movies he watched to prepare for his breakout part.

In fact, Kanter literally took them off his feet and gave them to McLaughlin right there on the court. It’s something we’ve seen Kanter do a few times this season to Celebrity Row attendees.

McLaughlin was also on MSG’s “People Talking Sports” after our Post Game Show and just when I thought being 46 wasn’t yet considered “old,” the kid pushed me right into the realm of expired milk and stonewashed jeans.

So as you know the show is set in the 1980s, which, of course, is the impressionable period of my youth, PTS host Sam Morril then asked McLaughlin, a huge Knicks and NBA fan, if he was familiar with those great teams from the ’80s.

“Uh, noooo.”

He managed to rattle off names such as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and … uhhh … “Who else?” he then said.

Somewhere Bernard King put in a VHS tape of Christmas Day 1984.

Or this video…

 

Kids these days.

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