Third quarters have been a problem for the Knicks all season. What has caused those struggles?

It’s well-documented that this was supposed to be the year Kristaps Porzingis became the definitive reset button for the Knicks. And the team, for all intents and purposes, did have moments where they appeared to be over-performing, leaving us flustered with excitement. But typical regression happened. You can always count on the Knicks to move away from those outlier performances, returning to what is expected. Winnable games become nights where all of Knicks Twitter dumbfounded by this or that. We’ve sat through multiple performances versus sub-.500 teams where it was collectively decided that this franchise just can’t seem to get out of its own way.

Looking back, there’s one commonality that carried over from the Carmelo Anthony era to where we sit present-day. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is, whether it’s home or away, or how much the Knicks are up by, the Knicks seem to lose their bearings coming out of the locker room after the first half.

Writing recaps for TKW, this trend is a detail I pay great attention to. While the box score matters, the third quarter—which used to be a prime spot for a ‘Melo takeover—has become a vulnerability for the Knicks. To understand how this can be fixed on a roster that will be without its main offensive contributor, it’s important to understand the real numbers behind the narrative of third quarter meltdowns.

As of this writing, the Knicks have been up at the end of the second quarter on 23 occasions. Their largest lead came versus the Heat on November 29th (a game where KP went down with an ankle injury and #OAKAAK Willy Hernangómez scored eight points in nine minutes). There was also the spoiling of Anthony’s return to the Garden, where the Knicks lead by six points and Michael Beasley put his foot on the Thunder’s neck with an impressive all-around game.

On the other side, the Knicks have struggled to secure leads against teams that they should have been light work. For example, the Knicks torched the Lakers at the Garden much to the glee of the New York faithful. But then last month, it looked like an entirely different team on the floor. To be fair, that loss was more about how well the Lakers forced turnovers and Jordan Clarkson couldn’t miss. Many of the Knicks’ losses have looked exactly like what that loss looked like, though: there are a few obvious commonalities that are worth examining.

The Knicks stop doing what works

Watching KP’s scorching start was some of the most fun NY hoops we’ve seen since the 54-win season. My personal favorite from that early period was versus Denver, where KP’s teammates got him the ball in his sweet spots. In conjunction with setting their star up for easy shots, the Knicks have improved immensely in moving the ball left to right to find the open man. They’re averaging 22.8 assists per game, up from 21.8 assists per game last season. Having a guard like Jarrett Jack in the context of spreading the floor and distributing the ball has helped the offense keep pace and get everyone involved.

After about 20-25 games, the Knicks often reverted back to the standing around that was a huge problem when ‘Melo was here. Rather than whipping the ball around the arc or players continuously moving without the ball, the squad forced the ball into the hands of Porzingis and hoped he would work his magic. Sometimes this worked, but after running the play into the ground, it became less and less effective to isolate KP. One of the greatest frustrations with this team is watching “lesser” opponents chip away at a lead by executing “Hoops 101” technique over and over again:

Where is the effort?

You can’t exclusively measure effort on the floor—but you can absolutely see it. You know when players give up and mentally check out of the game. You can tell when a player is outright quitting on plays. One thing that makes this season tough to stomach is how bad they are away from the Garden. The ‘Bockers  won seven games on the road. January was treacherous as they faced the toughest road schedule in the league. The first month of the year featured 12 road games, including three back-to-backs.

NBA Twitter ragged on KP for lamenting publicly just how tired he was. At this point in the season, everyone is tired. But you can’t single out one player when it comes to effort. The team frequently loses focus on defense and stops rotating or helping in the paint. Some guys—most noticeably Jarrett Jack—are winded in the third quarter because they’ve left so much on the floor in the first half. Per NBA Stats, the Knicks average 12.8 deflections per game. They share the near-dead last spot in steals per game, despite the fact that the interior defensive duo of KP and Enes Kanter being somewhat formidable before Porzingis went down. While it may not always translate to wins, second-half collapses could be slightly more palatable when players make a valiant effort to play with energy.

Could this be the coach’s fault?

It has become evident that Jeff Hornacek is failing this Knicks roster of sorts. It’s puzzling because guards are his bread-and-butter. However, he hasn’t found the success one would have hoped playing Jack, Courtney Lee, and Tim Hardaway Jr. Jack does what a 34-year-old floor general should be doing. The problem is, with the exception of a few outlying games, he hasn’t added much to the offense. His three-point shot is cringeworthy. So why then does Hornacek continue to assign him minutes, particularly in the third quarters where youth and a faster pace is needed? In recent games, Jack’s minutes have slipped (18 vs. Philly, eight vs. Indiana, 23 vs. Toronto). That’s a promising sign in deference to leaning into young, at least.

However, one can only guess that Hornacek doesn’t trust Frank Ntilikina to play through his mistakes. The rookie is averaging 20 minutes per game. To be fair, Ntilikina is often sidelined because of foul trouble or loosing a grip with the rock. But the Frenchman hasn’t started a single game so far. When Jack isn’t productive, Hornacek will continue to ride it out even with him being a defensive liability. A player can’t correct his mistakes and adapt to better habits if he isn’t on the floor consistently. Hornacek’s early inability to let Frank play games out, regardless of the outcome, squanders the path to an optimistic rebuild.

How can the Knicks overcome their third quarter flaws?

The easy suggestion is to know your personnel. Good losses and bad losses are judged based on the coach’s adjustment coming out of the locker room and how the players execute according to those adjustments. Be clear: I am not saying that KP’s injury was not going to happen. What I am saying is managing his minutes, particularly through that rough January stretch, would not have been a bad move. With a logjam at the center position, the “tired” issue could have been remedied by playing Willy Hernangómez and leaning more on Kyle O’Quinn and Michael Beasley to split time at the four.

Another suggestion is what most of Knicks fans have been saying since Christmas: PLAY YOUR YOUNG GUYS! I know Lance Thomas is captain and a fan-favorite, but he’s been mostly useless as a starter. Those minutes should have gone to Doug McDermott, a guy who had shot 46 percent overall, much better than Thomas’ woeful percentages. With the acquisition of athleticism in Emmanuel Mudiay, Hornacek has no excuse to not play the young guys and let them find their way without their star, something we saw in small sample sizes as Mudiay and Ntilikina teamed up in the backcourt.

Third quarter chaos can be easily fixed from a strictly statistical lens. With the recent inconsistency of Tim Hardaway Jr., the Knicks can’t count on out-shooting teams going forward. Not having KP means defenses are now going to swarm Enes Kanter down low, so the cure for fake Knicks comebacks is for the team to go back to the basics and do the little things.