In the span of 9 days, the Knicks have lost to the Cavaliers, Suns and Hawks. That represents three of the four teams below them in the league standings.
For Generation Tank, this would be considered a good thing. For those who saw Zion Williamson light up the Garden the night before in Duke’s gritty win over Texas Tech, this is merely the Road to Zion.
But this is a painful road.
Right now, according to Tankathon.com, the Knicks have a 10.5% chance to have the choice to get Zion Williamson. And they have 60% of a season to finish. They still have a lot of work to do, as well, when it comes to developing the young players they have, let alone pine for the one they may be able to get in the draft.
Kevin Knox had yet another big night on offense, but it was another performance that started off strong and then disappeared in the second half. Knox scored 24 points and had 6 rebounds on 8 of 17 shooting. But 21 of the 24 were scored in the first half. Actually, 17 of the 24 were scored in the first quarter.
This has become a trend over the last few games and something David Fizdale said the coaching staff is trying to figure out with the 19 year old.
“Maybe it’s him understanding it’s a long game,” Fizdale said, and suggested conditioning could be a factor.
Knox did a lot of his scoring in the first half off high motor plays, such as running the floor and finishing on the break and also creating his own shot off simple two-man game sets. But in the second half, Knox became more of a passenger in the offense. He spent most of his time on the perimeter waiting for kick outs and his shots were forced and, at times, aimed. He missed all six of his attempts in the second half and scored only when he went to the foul line.
But he carried the team in the first half, which saw the Knicks score 69 but give up 60. The defense continues to be an issue. Rookie Trae Young had 15 points and 10 rebounds and despite being known for his infinite range and willingness to show it off (despite a 25% clip from downtown) didn’t attempt a single three-point shot. He didn’t need to against a Knicks defense that the scouting report says struggles in pick-and-roll and also in stopping dribble penetration.
“We let them just come in here and do what they want,” Tim Hardaway Jr. said. “That shouldn’t happen. Can’t happen. That’s all I can say.”
Hardaway spent time on Young and couldn’t contain him. Frank Ntilikina entered the game and once again got into foul trouble, with some questionable calls that had him visibly frustrated.
And while the defense did little to keep the Hawks from scoring, the Knicks went from putting up 69 at the half to suddenly going cold in the second half. They made 7 of 15 from three in the first two quarters, but then made just 1 of 12 the rest of the game. Meanwhile, the Hawks drilled 7 of 16 in the final two quarters.
Emmanuel Mudiay rebounded from a night in Philly where he said he “sucked” to a 32-point performance that saw him Beast Mode against the smaller Young for most of the game. But the Knicks bench managed just 15 total points, as Ntilikina (0 points, 0 for 2) and Courtney Lee (0 points, 0 for 1) brought very little to the offense and Trey Burke and Mario Hezonja were DNP-CDs. Mitchell Robinson (ankle) and Allonzo Trier (hamstring) remained out of the lineup, though it seems both are getting closer to a return.
The Hawks got their 8th win of the season. The Knicks suffered their 25th. These two teams are among the bottom 5 in the NBA and the lottery system this season rewards a bottom 3 finish. All three teams with the worst NBA records have a 14% chance to win the lottery.
And with that in mind, the next month could determine a lot when it comes to lottery positioning. After this game, the Knicks have the toughest schedule remaining of any of the teams in the bottom 5. In fact, after playing a stretch that included the Cavs, Suns and Hawks, the Knicks will only see one team in the next nine games that has a losing record. That would be the Utah Jazz.
– The team issued a medical update on Kristaps Porzingis earlier in the day and said he underwent an evaluation of his surgically-repaired knee and it confirmed that the knee is healing well and has made “good progress” with rehabilitation. The Knicks said he has more benchmarks to clear and with each one he will “advance to on-court team drills and activities.” The most important part of the statement was that he will be re-evaluated in mid-February, which would be about the one year anniversary of the surgery. Team president Steve Mills joined us on the pregame show and said “we don’t know yet” if Porzingis will or will not play this season. “We feel good that he’s making steps,” Mills said. “He’s advanced to doing some work on the court with our coaching staff and we’re going to still see how he’s progressing. We’ll do another series of tests in mid-February.” But the good news is he’s is back on the basketball court doing drills with coaches at the training facility. “He was out on the court doing some three-quarter-court sprints and taking some pull-up threes, a couple of dunks,” Mills said. “So he was out there with the coach for 45 minutes or so. We felt good about the progress he’s making.”
– Mills also talked about supporting Fizdale through these dark days of a rebuild, where losses pile up and he’s the one who has to bear the burden of the record on his resume. “This is a tough thing for a coach because you don’t want him to lose track of what the long-term goals are because we understand he’s the one out there on the court, every night, having to suffer through these wins and losses,” Mills said. “Our job is to keep him propped up and between our entire group, make sure these guys feel confident, feel like we believe in them and that we’re holding them accountable to the progress they should be making.”
– Oh and when it comes to free agency, Mills told reporters earlier in the day that he was confident if they needed a max slot they could carve out room for one, but insisted the focus right now was to develop the players on the roster and develop the culture. Remember what Fizdale said back in September, if the culture isn’t right, no one will want to come. Mills also told me, “We will be able to create enough cap space to be able to go after one free agent, but that’s really a by-product of the way we designed our roster. Our goal is to focus on the guys that we currently have on the roster and how can we get the best out of them. And can they force us to make some difficult decisions about creating cap space.”
– About Zion Williamson, who put on a show at the Garden the night before with Mills in attendance along with several Knicks players — and some other NBA players, as well: he certainly separated himself from the rest of the class as a special athlete who looks physically ready for the NBA. He put up 17 points and 13 rebounds despite dealing with some questionable fouls called against him in a win over Texas Tech. It was Williamson’s first experience on the Garden floor and he said all the right things about it. “If they draft me, yeah, I would love to play for the Knicks,” he said after he made a face when asked the question. “I don’t really care where I go, just the experience of being in the NBA, whoever wants me, whoever sees the most in me, that’s where I want to be.” Williamson also said of the Garden, “Playing 41 games here wouldn’t be so bad.” But he did later reveal that he’s put some thought into playing in New York, when he said his favorite Knick was Bernard King. “My stepdad talked about him a lot,” he said, “how he just put the ball in the basket . . . I had to go watch his highlights. He could really score the basketball. He was incredible how he did it.” Coincidentally, King has been instrumental in mentoring Knox. He’d be more than willing to do the same for a powerful force like Williamson if the Knicks are fortunate enough to be in a position to draft him.
– A programming note: ESPN has the exclusive broadcast for the Christmas Day game against the Bucks. We will not have the game on MSG Network. Everyone have a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!