Knicks Escape Utah with Much-Needed Victory

5 Thoughts on the Win:

1. The emotion was relief. It was written clearly on the faces of the Knicks when the final horn sounded at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Tim Hardaway Jr., who played a huge role in pushing his team to the win, couldn’t ignore the obvious sense of escape the team felt after this one ended.

“We got lucky, man,” he said.

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This has been the script lately for this team: play well enough to win, do just enough to lose and it comes down to make-or-miss situations late in the game. It happened against the Bulls. It happened against the Pelicans. It happened against the Grizzlies.

It almost happened again in Utah, but this time, as Hardaway said, “thankfully the ball went our way and we got the win.”

The Jazz had three attempts from three-point range to tie the score on the final possession to force an overtime the Knicks wanted nothing to do with after blowing a 10-point lead in the final two minutes. The second two looks were uncontested, as the Knicks scrambled around trying to get the long rebounds. The usually-reliable and historically Knick-killing Joe Johnson missed a corner look and then Joe Ingles, who shoots 40% from downtown, bricked his chance from the other corner.


On to Los Angeles.

2. Hardaway was re-inserted into the starting lineup for the game, which made a world of difference at the start. The trick was to give him breaks throughout the game so he could still be on the court down the stretch, where he has been terrific this season.

The medical staff is holding Hardaway Jr. to a minutes cap in the mid-20s during this road trip. He played 27 minutes in this game, which is another reason why the Knicks did not want overtime. That would have put Jeff Hornacek in a tough spot. Hardaway had 31 points and scored some huge buckets in the fourth quarter.

But let’s take a moment to appreciate what Hardaway Jr. has done since his return from missing 20 games with a stress injury in his leg. He’s played four of the five games and is averaging 22 points per game on 52.6% shooting, including 43.8% from three-point range. He’s doing this in 27.6 minutes per game.

That’s remarkable for a player who missed six weeks of action. He essentially has picked up right where he left off. In the previous 17 games before his injury, Hardaway Jr. was averaging 19.9 points per game on 44.8% shooting.

Remember how you felt about his contract when the Knicks signed him this summer? He’s certainly changed the perspective on that this season. Beyond the numbers, Hardaway Jr. has played with a great intensity that this team certainly missed when he wasn’t on the court.

3. Hornacek played 12 of the 13 available players in this game. He had a very quick hook with several players, which seemed to send a message after the loss in Memphis: if you don’t come into the game ready to play, you won’t last long.

The most notable case was rookie Frank Ntilikina. He came into the game in the first half playing way too soft and hesitant and within three minutes, he was out and Trey Burke came in. Burke played fairly well in the first half, but when it came time for subs in the second half, Hornacek gave Ntilikina a second chance.

Same result. Not much of anything. This time, Hornacek didn’t wait more than two minutes before he pulled the rookie off the court.

Ron Baker saw some extensive minutes late in the first half and also in the third quarter. His job was to pester Rodney Hood and get him off his game. Hood had 14 points at the half, but only had four in the second half. He left the game with a leg injury and wasn’t available for that fateful final possession when his three-point shooting would have been valuable.

Meanwhile, Ntilikina, who has seen a lot of fourth-quarter playing time this season, was left on the bench in the fourth against Utah. When it came time to sub, Hornacek went to Burke.

And Burke took the ball and never gave it back.

He played the final 9:58 of the game and scored five points with two assists as he ran the offense down the stretch to a win.

“He did,” Hornacek said, “what a point guard is supposed to do.”

He ran high screen-and-roll with Kristaps Porzingis (18 points) and Michael Beasley (10 points) to near perfection and also made the Jazz pay for going under the screen by nailing a three. Did the Knicks see enough here to move Burke ahead of Ntilikina in the rotation?

Hardaway Jr., who teamed with Burke in the backcourt at Michigan, was encouraging his buddy to show out. It wasn’t lost on Tim, or Trey, that he was re-establishing himself against the team that drafted him in 2013.

“I think I was a little conservative when I first walked into the game,” Burke said, “but I got comfortable as time went by.”

4. Wally Szczerbiak mocks so much of my analytical data as “useless stats,” but here are some numbers that will make Hornacek fume and yet perhaps also supports the theory within the locker room that this team isn’t as far off from who they were early in the season.

The Knicks shot 49.4% from the field and 55% (11-for-20) from three and scored 117 points in this game, which represented the eighth time over the last nine games that the team has shot over 46% from the field, 37% from three, which are both above the NBA shooting averages this season.

In fact, in this nine-game stretch, the team is shooting 48.6% from the field and 41.4% from three while averaging 109.6 points per game.

Alan Hahn and Wally Szczerbiak head to the box score to break down the performances from Courtney Lee and Trey Burke.

Yet they’ve gone 3-6 in that stretch.

While late-game execution has been an issue, the defense is clearly the bigger problem. During these nine games, the Knicks have 7.6 blocks and 6.8 steals per game, but they’re allowing 112.3 points per game despite pedestrian shooting by their opponents (45.5% from the field, 34.2% from three).

So what’s the issue? Turnovers and fouls.

The Knicks are turning the ball over 15.2 times per game in this stretch, which is giving their opponent more possessions. They’re also allowing 12.1 offensive rebounds per game, which are even more possessions. Add to that 22 fouls per game, which turns into 24.8 free throw attempts per game for the opponent, you have the formula for self-inflicted wounds that render irrelevant a red-hot offense.

Just picture Hornacek sitting on the team plane, watching the game back on his iPad and repeatedly slamming said iPad against his forehead.

Or me doing the same thing each morning.

5. An ESPN report said the Charlotte Hornets have made Kemba Walker available for trade before the Feb. 8 trade deadline. Immediately, as if often the case when a known player is available, #KnicksTwitter went into a frenzy.

Walker, who turns 28 in May, has one year left on his contract after this season at a very affordable $12 million salary. He will become a free agent in 2019.

The Bronx native has said all the right things following the report. He would prefer to stay in Charlotte, but make no mistake that his preferred destination would be to come home and play at the Garden.

All of this sounds like a no-brainer until you read deeper into the reports about the Hornets’ intentions in any Walker trade: dumping more salary for expiring contracts and draft picks. So what we have here is not just the addition of Walker, a 20-point scorer at the point guard position, at a very cap-friendly contract, but you’d have to be willing to saddle your payroll with one of the following:

– Oft-injured Nic Batum, who has three more years left after this season at an average of $25 million each, running through the 2020-21 season.
– Oft-injured Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who has two years left after this season at an average of $13 million each.
– Underwhelming Marvin Williams, who has two years left after this season at an average of $14.5 million each.

This type of move would put you into the luxury tax and take you out of free agency until 2021. So what’s the trade-off? Does it make you anything more than a lower-level playoff team?

There’s a lot to weigh when it comes to this scenario. Walker is a local kid who has had some huge games at the Garden as a college star at UConn. The question you have to ask is, does a move like this fit in the plan that was put in place by Steve Mills and Scott Perry?

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