McConnell Overwhelms Knicks in Philly

5 Thoughts on the Loss:

1. What we’re learning is there’s a lot to learn about this young backcourt experiment. One game after the Emmanuel MudiayFrank Ntilikina duo had an intriguing debut in Indiana, the magic was lost in Philadelphia.

Both lottery picks struggled against the relentless pressure defense by undrafted guard T. J. McConnell, who exposed a most concerning weakness for the young Knick guards at a most fundamental skill: dribbling the basketball.

The Mudi-Kina Backcourt played 28 minutes together in Indiana and when they were on the floor together, the Knicks outscored the Pacers by nine. They recorded three steals, forced six turnovers and committed only three. They had 17 assists on 26 made field goals. But the stat that stood out most to Jeff Hornacek was the 12 fast break points the Knicks had when the two were on the court together. That’s a huge number for a team that averages just 7.5 fast break points per game on the season.

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But the next night, Hornacek didn’t like what he saw with the two on the court so he pulled the plug quickly. The duo played just six minutes together against the 76ers. The Knicks were outscored 16-12 in that time and committed two turnovers — both steals off Ntilikina passes — that resulted in five points for Philadelphia.

Mudiay, who played 19 minutes, told reporters he tweaked his ankle early in the game and it had some effect on his performance. Ntilikina, who was scoreless with three turnovers in 21 minutes, maintained his penchant for struggling in the second game of back-to-backs.

“You have to learn how to play two games in a row with the same spirit and the same fire,” Hornacek said. “He’s going to learn that.”

It’s been a season of learning for Ntilikina and for those of us watching closely to see just what he can be at the NBA level.

2. In the midst of this uninspiring game, McConnell (six steals) stole the show and overwhelmed the Knicks, who succumbed to the pressure defense. It’s been an issue all season long. If you pressure the point guard and overplay the wings, the Knicks turn the ball over. They had 19 turnovers in this game, which led to 28 points for the Sixers.

“You’ve got to give McConnell a lot of credit,” Hornacek said. “He got all after our point guards and we weren’t able to handle that. He got steals and put enough pressure where it took us 13 [seconds] to get into any sort of play. That was disruptive.”

McConnell also recorded a triple-double (10 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists) to go along with that game-changing defense. He was the first player in 76ers history to record a triple-double off the bench. But forget the stats, it was just his gritty effort and relentless energy that made the biggest impact.

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And as you watch this game and say, “How come the Knicks can’t find players like this?” keep in mind that McConnell was a summer league find from three years ago who has been improving year to year. It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows for the Pittsburgh native who played at Duquesne and later Arizona before he signed with the 76ers summer league team in 2015. If it seems like he always has big games against the Knicks, you’re right. Last season he buried a game-winner over Carmelo Anthony, and on Christmas Day he put in 15 points in the 76ers win at The Garden.

He’s what Hornacek hopes Ron Baker can eventually become. Baker is a year behind McConnell, but his injury-riddled season has been a major setback in his development.

3. Meanwhile, as Mudiay, Ntilikina and Jarrett Jack struggled to bring the ball up against McConnell’s pressure defense, there was one guard on the bench that was aching to get in and “blow right by that guy,” as Hornacek put it.

Remember Trey Burke?

He played four minutes against Philadelphia.

Burke had 12 points in 13:03 against the Raptors on Thursday, the night of the trade deadline. But since Mudiay arrived, he’s played a total of 12:13 over two games.

There is definitely a need to play Mudiay and Ntilikina over the final quarter of this season, but where does Burke, who is 25 years old, stand in the plans for the future?

It’s a tough spot for him because he chose to sign with the Knicks, rather than other teams, because of the opportunity he saw here to revive his career. He did everything right, from playing well in the G-League to waiting for his chance to sign with the Knicks. But his playing time has never been consistent since he arrived and now his role is uncertain.

It should be noted that despite his inconsistent minutes, Burke is shooting 54.1% from the field and 41.2% (7-for-17) from three in 13 games with the Knicks this season. He’s averaging 20.4 points per 36 minutes and 7.9 assists per 36, as well. His size is a concern on defense, especially on screens, but he’s not the only guard in the league playing at 6-foot.

Do you want to see more of Burke?

4. Meanwhile, Burke’s Michigan pal, Tim Hardaway Jr., can’t get to the All-Star break fast enough. His shooting slump has moved into a seventh straight game and it’s getting difficult to watch him go through it.

Hardaway is now shooting 26% from the field in his last 7 games, including 5-for-44 from three-point range. He went 0-for-8 from downtown in Philly and it started to feel like he was Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy on the 18th hole in the U.S. Open. He just refuses to lay up.

“I’m not going to lie and sit here and laugh about it,” Hardaway said. “It’s frustrating. It’s pissing me off.”

Hornacek spent time with Hardaway after practice trying to recalibrate his shot. But all he could do is just stand there on the sidelines and helplessly watch as Hardaway missed shot after shot from long range.

“I don’t know what it is, but we’ll continue to work with him,” Hornacek said. “But he’s got to get out of it.”

5. So before every game, Wally Szczerbiak and I do this hit for the Knicks social media pages called the Jose Cuervo Hot Take. It’s usually something about the game that night, but before the game against the 76ers, Wally used it as a chance to send a message to Ben Simmons, who recently complained about being passed over for the All-Star team.

Simmons said, “I don’t really know what an All-Star is anymore,” after Goran Dragic and Kemba Walker were both chosen ahead of him — by NBA commissioner Adam Silver, it should be noted — as injury replacements. The rookie then went on to blast Walker for being on a team that has a worse record than his team.

These are definitely different times. The old school mentality is young players need to earn their status and give respect to veterans in the league. There is also a school of thought that him speaking out about deserving to be an All-Star over another player comes off as unprofessional.

“I’m sick of Ben Simmons’ act of whining and crying to try to get into the All-Star game,” said Szczerbiak, who earned All-Star status in his third season in the NBA. “Listen, you’re a rookie and you can’t make a shot outside of 5-feet. Kemba Walker deserved to be on that team over you, now be quiet. You have a lot of time to make the All-Star game.”

Wally wasn’t the only former NBA star to call out Simmons. Grant Hill, a seven-time All-Star, on NBA TV also advised Simmons to dial down the self-pity.

“You’re a great player with a great future, but you’re a rookie,” Hill said. “Just keep your mouth shut and play great basketball.”

Do you think that Simmons was out of line in making those comments or are you fine with him speaking out about what he believes he’s earned?

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