Doc Rivers just shared the secret to his team’s success this season and it’s a simple formula. The better the talent you have, the better the coach you are.
Even after trading away their top player, Tobias Harris, and clearing salary cap space for free agency, the Clippers have stayed in the Western Conference playoff race because they have a core of experienced veterans and, most importantly, they have closers.
In this game, Lou Williams, arguably the greatest Sixth Man in NBA history, was the Clippers version of Mariano Rivera. The Knicks battled the Clippers in a relatively entertaining game for three quarters and held a three-point lead with 7:20 to go.
Enter Sand Man.
Williams scored 15 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter, including a dagger three against some soft defense with 3:02 left to give the Clippers a 111-104 lead.
“You always talk about having closers,” Rivers said. “Most teams, like our team, where we don’t have an all-star, most of those teams don’t have closers. We are a team with no all-stars, but we have two closers. That’s unusual. But that’s why we’ve won a lot of games down the stretch.”
The second closer Rivers was referencing was Danilo Gallinari, the former Knicks lottery pick who has had an injury-riddled career but is healthy this season and enjoying one of his best years. Gallo had 8 of his 26 points in the fourth and drilled a three with 4:12 left that turned a one-point Knicks lead into a two-point deficit.
The Knicks have neither an all-star, nor a closer. The closest thing they have is Emmanuel Mudiay (26 points, 7 assists), who did his best to keep pace, but had two of his drives blocked down the stretch, as the Clippers started to pull away. That’s been the story for most games — not all, of course — during this frustrating season: compete, battle and lose in the end because the other team had better talent.
This offseason, with the potential for $70 million in cap space and a lottery pick, the Knicks will be in the business of talent acquisition. The mission is to find at least one player, if not more, who can be the Knicks version of Mo Rivera.
Coincidentally, they’ll be competing with the Clippers, who have the second-most available cap space ($50 million) this summer, for high-end talent. Most rumors link them to Kawhi Leonard, but there will be some heavy flirting done with Kevin Durant. With a veteran core of Williams, Gallinari and the rugged energizer Montrezl Harrell and young talent such as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet, the playoff-bound Clippers have a lot to offer a star looking to move into a ready-made situation.
“Other than the weather, we’ll stop there,” Rivers said, as he declined to discuss his free agency pitch.
David Fizdale, meanwhile, said last week that free agency “is like a million miles away” but admitted he’s gotten enough feedback from people he confides in around the league that his efforts in building up this young Knicks roster has not gone unnoticed. The Knicks have inexperienced players all over the roster, which has had the coaching staff in teaching mode all season long.
It’s something Rivers remembered experiencing with the Celtics in 2006-07, when he had an injured Paul Pierce and four rookies and a host of players with less than three years of experience.
“That’s a hard job because you’re teaching and you’re not necessarily winning,” Rivers said before the game. “But it pays dividends later.”
That’s all Fizdale can hope for at this point, with the most excitement surrounding rookies Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier, while Dennis Smith Jr. seems like he’s one offseason dedicated to elite-level conditioning away from showing his true potential.
As for veterans, the Knicks don’t have nearly what the Clippers have, aside from DeAndre Jordan, who had 20 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks and 2 steals in 34 minutes against his former team. Jordan was a beast throughout this game and showed there’s still a lot of game left in his 30-year-old body.
And giving Jordan the minutes in this game to show that off was also part of player development, Fizdale explained. It is about developing relationships with players you’d like to keep, such as Jordan, who will be a free agent this summer but could be an important part of attracting Durant and others.
“He was playing really well and that is his old team,” Fizdale explained. “Out of respect, I wanted to give him the opportunity to do that. Plus, he made it easy for me.”
One might suggest doing this came at the expense of playing Robinson (13:49), who needs the reps far more than Jordan. But if you ask Robinson, he loved every minute of watching his mentor work.
“I saw a whole different person,” Robinson said with a smile on his face. “DJ wanted to ball, so, I mean, let him go. Cut him loose, let him play. He was ballin’.”
– Injuries impacted both of the Knicks’ lottery picks on the roster: Frank Ntilikina was taken out of the game at halftime after he felt soreness in his groin after playing just 6:50 in the first half. Ntilikina missed over a month with a groin strain before he returned to the lineup on Friday night against the Nuggets. Fizdale said the team “just wanted to be cautious” because groin injuries can be chronic issues. It is, however, another setback for Ntilikina, who has played in just 43 games this season.
Kevin Knox was off to a good start in this game (11 points, 4 for 9 shooting in 18:50) but left the game in the second quarter when he twisted his right ankle landing on the foot of Patrick Beverley on a three-point attempt. No foul was called. Fizdale said he was told Knox would be “day-to-day” which is actually good news. The Knicks have three days off before their next game, Thursday against the Raptors. Both Ntilikina and Knox have time to heal. There are 8 games left in the season.
– Gallinari and Wilson Chandler have been united again as teammates on three different NBA teams. The two began their NBA journey as teammates with the Knicks in 2008-09, when Gallo was a rookie and Chandler was in his second season. They were both eventually sent to Denver in the Carmelo Anthony trade in Feb. 2011 and spent the next six seasons with the Nuggets (each missed an entire season in that time due to injury). Gallo was then traded to the Clippers in July 2017 and the 2017-18 season was the first time the two were not teammates while both in the league. That lasted a season and a half until Chandler was traded to the Clippers from the 76ers in the Tobias Harris deal on Feb. 6.
[Watch the Knicks Take On the Raptors Thursday at 7 PM on MSG & MSG GO.]