Knicks Go Small to Beat Hawks

5 Thoughts on the Win:

1. The game has changed, we all know this. The NBA is heading to an era where there may be just two positions on the court: guard and forward. The All-Star voting already reflects this direction. You vote for two guards and three forwards.

Lineups are starting to reflect this as well and this game was an example of it. The Hawks were without Dewayne Dedmon (stress reaction) and Mike Muscala (ankle), which left them with just one true big man in the offensively limited Miles Plumlee.

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So Mike Budenholzer went small and here’s where the debate begins: Do you overwhelm small lineups with size or do you match small with small?

Jeff Hornacek tried to use the size factor early, but eventually surrendered to the small-ball mentality and that’s where the game turned in favor of the Knicks. Check out these never-before-seen five-man units that Hornacek employed in the third quarter:

Frank Ntilikina, Ron Baker, Doug McDermott, Michael Beasley and Lance Thomas — the tallest player on the floor was the 6’9″ Beasley. This group scored 13 points in just four minutes but also committed five fouls (Beasley had the hatchet out in this game).

Frank Ntilikina, Ron Baker, Doug McDermott, Michael Beasley and Kyle O’Quinn – this group only played three minutes, mostly because Beasley (six fouls in 9 minutes) couldn’t stay on the floor. But in their brief stint, the group scored 10 points and was +7, which is the best of all of the lineups Hornacek used in the game.

Though small-ball was a big part of the game, there was still Kristaps Porzingis — the biggest player on their team — who dominated with his 9th 30-point game of the season. It’s worth noting that it was KP’s first 30-point game in a month.

2. The bench came through with a big game and produced 45 points, led by Doug McDermott’s season-high 23 points. McDermott had 10 points in Chicago on Saturday night and had a look in his eye that had been missing for a while: the look of a determined scorer.

McDermott was often compared to my MSG Network’s partner Wally Szczerbiak and I have to say while there are some similarities in their games — size, shooting ability and underrated athleticism — there is also a huge difference between the two when it comes to mental approach. Doug’s nickname is “Dougie McBuckets” but Wally Ball was all about getting buckets, while Doug seems to get lost too often in games without getting his FGAs.

So when McDermott had 10 points at the half against the Hawks, Wally was on the halftime show with Al Trautwig and offered a challenge to McBuckets: stay aggressive. “Get to 20!” he implored.

You might say that’s a selfish mentality, but analytics tells us the Knicks have success when McDermott scores. They’re now 7-3 when he merely gets to double-figures.

McDermott likely didn’t hear Wally’s televised motivational speech, but he did make his childhood idol proud. Doug played 14 minutes in the second half and scored 13 points on 5 of 7 shooting to finish with 23 points in 31 minutes.

Another difference between McDermott and Szczerbiak is that Wally could create his own shot, while McDermott relies heavily on being set up by others. In his career, 87.4% of McDermott’s buckets come off assists and he has shown to be very effective moving without the ball. So there is a reliance on guard play and passing. The better that is, the better he is.

3. Speaking of guard play, the Knicks only had 16 assists as a team, which is the second-lowest output of the season. But it was the more aggressive offensive approach by Jarrett Jack (19 points) and Ntilikina (8 points) that helped open things up for others.

We told you recently about how the Knicks point guards were at the bottom of the league in offensive production and three-point shooting. Opposing defenses took note of this and backed off on screen-and-roll situations as if to dare them to shoot. So Hornacek has implored them to look for their shot and get into the paint more. Jack did this very well against the Hawks and, in fact, it led to Budenholzer sending his most talented player, Dennis Schroder, to the bench despite his 21 points because Schroder (four fouls) was struggling on defense.

Jack had a score-first mentality earlier in his career, especially when he was coming off the bench. In the first seven years of his career, he shot 35.6% from three, which included some seasons over 40%, so there’s reason to respect his shot. But over the last four seasons, which included two major knee injuries, Jack’s touch from downtown has dropped to 28.2%. This season he has made just 8 for 28 from beyond the arc.

We all love a pass-first point guard who unselfishly looks to set up teammates over his own shot, but you still have to be aggressive and look for your shot. The great 70’s Knicks teams had the “Find The Open Man” mentality and to paraphrase the great Walt Clyde Frazier, some nights YOU are the open man.

4. Getting back to the weird lineup topic, we should talk about a backcourt tandem that Hornacek deployed in throughout the game that got results. Ntilikina and Baker got after it defensively and The Garden crowd seemed to love their effort.

The duo played together for 25 minutes and while on the floor together, the Knicks recorded eight of their nine steals and forced 13 of the Hawks’ 17 turnovers. Atlanta shot just 37.1% from the field and made just 4 of 14 from downtown. The Knicks outscored the Hawks by nine (60-51) in their time together on the floor.

Ntilikina and Baker combined for five steals, with three by Ntilikina.

Hornacek is looking for someone to step into the open rotation spot in the absence of Tim Hardaway Jr. He gave rookie Daymean Dotson a few looks and it did not produce enough results to stay with it. Against the Hawks, Baker got right after it with his defense and hustle and it once again reminded those watching that this is the way the Knicks are going to have success this season.

The stats will tell you the Knicks are 7-0 in games in which they score over 110 points, but they’re also 6-0 when they hold opponents under 100. And considering this was the first time they scored over 110 without Hardaway Jr., common sense tells you they should concentrate more on the latter stat while he’s out of the lineup.

Baker, at 6’4″, will have some matchup issues against bigger guards but you’ll always get every ounce of his energy and effort. He prepared for this season after re-signing on a two-year contract to be a rotation player and then had to endure a preseason ankle injury which was followed by a shoulder injury.

He’s been working hard not just in practice but on his own — Garden employees see him on game nights put in rigorous on-court workouts alone with a coach three hours before tipoff — and potentially could be a complementary piece with the bigger Ntilikina in a hard-nosed defensive backcourt off the bench.

Jeff Hornacek discusses using a small lineup in the fourth quarter, the solid performance from Ron Baker off the bench, Enes Kater playing hurt and more after the win over the Hawks.

5. This was the definition of a grinder. The game took two hours and 35 minutes to complete, which is the longest game of the season by almost 15 minutes. Most games this season have been completed in or around two hours and that’s the result of the NBA’s effort to speed up games by taking away the extra timeouts and shortening halftime. But when you have 58 fouls and 64 free throws, you’re not making your usual train after the game.

Of course, the wait for the next train isn’t so bad when you win.

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BONUS: It was Garden of Dreams Awareness Night and you should be aware of the great things this foundation does for kids in our area. Here are two features that give just a small look into the experiences Garden of Dreams provides for children:

And if you want to join me in being a supporter of the Garden of Dreams Foundation, go here and be part of helping brighten the lives of a child who could really use a reason to smile.