March 2018
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Knicks Fall to Portland with Predictable Lillard Offensive Explosion

Photo: Cameron Browne/Getty Images
Kanter’s 32nd double-double of the season plus a hot Beasley off the bench were no match for Damian Lillard and the streaking Blazers in Frank Ntilikina’s first career start—and the Knicks’ 13th loss in 14 games.

The floundering New York Knicks (24–41) took on the red-hot Trail Blazers (39–26) in Portland on Tuesday night, a final score of 111–87. The Knicks extended their losing streak to five while the Blazers made it nine straight wins.

Actually, a five-game loss streak doesn’t quite sum up how rough the Knicks have had it. Since January 31, the Knicks are 1–13, with their lone win coming against the lowly Orlando Magic.

Tonight, the Knicks managed to hang around until Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum erupted from beyond the arc, with Portland canning 20 three-pointers in total. Let’s take a look at the action:

Tank Watch

It always strikes me as disrespectful to the players on a tanking team to suggest that they want to lose. And to the credit of the players the Knicks put on the floor tonight—Enes Kanter, Lance Thomas, Tim Hardaway Jr, Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke, and even Michael Beasley—none of them looked like they are trying to lose. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Blazers up by rougly 20 points, Kanter was still chasing C.J. McCollum off the three-point line, even after getting slapped in the mouth by teammate Mudiay. Respect the hustle.

The Knicks just aren’t good enough to win games. Tell me if you’ve heard that one over the past few abysmal seasons. As grim as the on-court product may be, though, this is kind of shaping up to be a best-case scenario for the rest of the Knicks’ season after losing Kristaps Porzingis; they’re trying new, interesting but unproductive lineups while getting thrashed night after night, steadily improving their draft lottery prospects.

Automatic Lillard

Coming off a scorching fourth quarter—the type of scoring explosion Damian Lillard has basically patented—Lillard picked up right where he left off.

The Knicks’ backcourt had a clear gameplan: get in Lillard’s face, using the length and quickness of Mudiay and Ntilikina to crowd Lillard’s airspace. Sounds logical. Only problem is Lillard is as scrappy and physical as it gets. He dished it right back and used his opponents’ insistence on staying up in his grill against them by burning them off of screens and shifty change-of-speed dribbles. The indefensible Lillard buried five threes before the half and had the Knicks gasping for air.

Hornacek’s “Frank”enstein

Frank Ntilikina started for the first game in his career, at shooting guard, a recent experiment from Jeff Hornacek and the rest of New York’s coaching staff. Defensively, it’s been promising. Ntilikina and Mudiay both have the size, length, and side-to-side agility to switch against smaller backcourts like Portland’s. Matchup wise, Ntilikina really seemed to bother C.J. McCollum at first, staying down on McCollum’s signature array of fakes, hesitation dribbles, and back-cuts. Early on, Mudiay was aggressive at getting a body on Lillard when he had the ball.

On offense, the Ntilikina, Mudiay, and THJ combination is unsurprisingly a mixed bag. Mudiay and THJ push the pace hard, looking for fastbreak opportunities, and it kept the Knicks within shouting distance for long stretches of this game. Mudiay was especially feisty at driving straight into Lillard’s body trying to create contact, but he faltered late.

The problem is spacing: Ntilikina’s jumper still looks shaky, and it’s safe to say Mudiay will never be a plus shooter. Tim Hardaway Jr., on the other hand, can light it up, but his shot selection is comically poor and has been since he came into the league. This bizarre, undersized trio has a lot to like—effort, length, speed—but they’re not having an overall net-positive impact on the floor. It’ll be interesting to see next season which parts of Hornacek’s Frankenstein the Knicks keep, and which parts they cut off and throw away.

Burke ice cold

Speaking of the Knicks’ backcourt, where was Trey Burke, Allen Iverson 2.0 tonight? With his braids gone and the afro on full display, Burke didn’t look quite the same, in terms of both style and performance. For the first time since erupting against the Orlando Magic on February 22 for 26 points, Burke struggled shooting the ball, finishing with just four points on 2-of-12 shooting.

He didn’t just miss shots, though, Burke also looked a little out of sorts on both offense and defense. Offensively, he forced up tough, low-percentage shots, going away from the nifty new floater he’s shown this season. On the other end, Burke had no idea what to do with Lillard but, to be fair, no one else did either.

The Knicks continue their circus show on the road in Milwaukee looking to snap their cold spell with a matchup against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks on Friday night.

For the Knicks Film School breakdown, check out the video highlighting plays from last night:


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