Comb through the fine details to find what really caused the Knicks to blow a double-digit lead against King James’ club: a terrible reaction to Cleveland’s small-ball offensive approach.
Kristaps Porzingis missed two crucial free-throws last night with 2:27 to play, which would have pushed the Knicks to a five-point lead. That was backbreaking, but the day after a tough loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers—a loss that saw the Cavs come back from down 23 points at one point—I’m still hung up on the terrible, no good defense the Knicks exhibited in the fourth quarter. Tyronn Lue’s squad got the better of Jeff Hornacek’s team due to some pretty specific schematic reasons.
Here’s what went wrong in particular.
The Cavs went small, and Hornacek left Kanter in the game too long.
Okay, so you may look at this first point with the Nick Young Confused Face, and Enes Kanter had a pretty good basketball game by most standards. Nonetheless, you need to look beyond the solid numbers from Kanter—20 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, and some bully ball in the first quarter that scored him a double technical foul along with Cleveland’s LeBron James.
What really went wrong for Kanter and the Knicks was something Lue and Cleveland took advantage of really, really well. That was Kyle Korver. Or, more specifically, the position the Cavs put Korver in that let him succeed.
While the Knicks had a lineup consisting of Jarrett Jack/Frank Ntilikina, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee, Porzingis, and Kanter, Cleveland went relatively small, or really, they went skilled with Frye at center. Enes was borderline unplayable when the Cavs trotted out James with Korver, Smith, Frye or Crowder, and either Shumpert or Wade. One prime example of the mismatch Cleveland gained was the Kanter–Porzingis frontcourt for New York. Kanter was routinely switched onto Jae Crowder—a capable three-point shooter—but Enes wouldn’t budge from the paint and instead let Crowder shoot five threes, sinking a pair. But more than important than Crowder was the room on the perimeter the Cavs were given while Kanter hung around the blue paint. Cleveland moved the ball around so well, and with James whipping passes to his teammates, the Cavs found space for triples from Channing Frye, Cedi Osman, and even LeBron himself.
I’ll admit, Kanter is so fun to watch work operate in the interior. He’s very adept at corralling loose balls for put backs, and his footwork around the rim is flabbergasting. However, Kanter finished the game with a -6 on the night because he stayed in too long. The Knicks squandered a large lead because they could not adapt to Cleveland’s three-point-oriented offense. Quick flare screens and space for Korver to get off his notoriously quick three-point shot devastated the Knicks in the fourth quarter, and it was a symptom of Hornacek’s inability to play his wing defenders, Lance Thomas and Courtney Lee, and trusting his team with Porzingis at center.
Tim Hardaway Jr. couldn’t stay with Korver.
And on that point about Korver’s hot shooting, Tim Hardaway Jr. could. not. stay. with. his. man. Late into the game Hornacek switched Lee onto Korver because Hardaway Jr. could not get past the screens Cleveland was setting to free up K-squared. Kyle Korver scored 21 fourth quarter points on the back of five three-pointers. It’s not a coincidence the Cavs came back down 15 in the last period. To me, as vital as the KP free-throws would have been to make it a two possession game, the Knicks’ horrible communication on defense led to the 15 points via Korver alone. A 15-point lead lost hurts so much more than missed free-throws.
If you look at the micro details of this loss, you’ll see LeBron doing LeBron things: 12 assists and leading the charge, penetrating into the lane as Cleveland’s nominal point guard, and finding his open teammates. Threes are greater than twos, people. I’m upset at THJ being completely unable to fight off screens and keep close enough to Korver to contest his quick release shot. Nonetheless, you’ll see the Knicks’ defense completely collapse because of total lack of communication and poor talent at the wing positions. Cleaning up the glass is rendered meaningless if your team cannot stick with opponents’ three-point shooting wings draining treys, and the Knicks could not adapt to Lue’s small-ball game that propelled them from the 15-point hole to victory.
Anyway, let’s end this with last night’s positives. For one, Porzingis did indeed struggle all evening, but his teammates picked him up. When he wasn’t getting his money’s worth with the manhandling defense of LeBron, he failed to convert on some shots he was making this season. However, the Knicks failed to identify KP in favorable situations and allowed themselves to fall into the habit of dumping it to him in the post against LeBron and Crowder. Those aren’t optimal match ups despite the clear height advantage possessed by Kristaps. While KP faltered, Lee, Kanter, and Hardaway Jr. found positive steps. Lee, never one to not play hard, exemplified his nightly hard work with a steal off the inbounds for a layup. Hardaway Jr., still searching for a consistently shot selection, sunk four triples and found his way to the tin with some really encouraging drives. I love to see that from Junior. Kanter made a mockery of Kevin Love’s low post defense. Enes deftly skipped past Love and shot 60 percent from the field, even shooting a 13-footer from the left wing on his own version of a heat check. The Knicks competed with the reigning Eastern Conference champs, and that’s perfectly O.K. from a developing team with a mediocre record. The Knicks need to learn from their missteps, though.
The offense was mostly fine on Monday night, but the defense gave up 43 points to the Cavs in the fourth quarter after allowing the Cavs to score just 38 in the first half. It was a complete and utter meltdown on defense, and there’s no other way to explain it. You can be frustrated by Porzingis’ boneheaded free-throw misses late down the stretch, Ntilikina’s turnover (on a night he stole six cookies from Cleveland’s jar), and some poor rebounding. But looking at the fine details that brought Cleveland from the brink of New York bragging blow out, I’m still shaken up by the horrid late game no-show of Jeff Hornacek’s (and Kurt Rambis’) defense.