The difference between the Knicks being bounced in the play-in or making any kind of playoff run will be how well they play in crunch time.
The New York Knicks sit at the cusp of the play-in tournament as of February 15 with one more game before the All-Star break. With 23 games left in the season, New York is half a game behind the Miami Heat, the sixth seed, and four and a half games ahead of the Washington Wizards, the tenth seed. Every game matters with the chance to avoid the play-in tournament within their grasp, and the threat of missing the tournament looming behind them — albeit further back but still possible in a competitive Eastern Conference.
This makes some of the Knicks’ struggles at the end of games, including overtime, all the more frustrating. Per Stats.NBA.com, the Knicks are currently 17-15 in clutch situations, which the league defines as games within five points within the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or later. A winning percentage of 53.1% in said situations is good enough to tie New York with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the 11th-best in the league. However, as a recent overtime loss to the Los Angeles Clippers particularly highlighted, even within these clutch situations, not all endings are created equal.
When you break down these games that feature clutch situations and look into those in which the Knicks are ahead or tied within the last minute they are 13-9, which gives them a winning percentage of 59.1%. Better than only the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and the Chicago Bulls. (side note: the Bulls are 5-10 in such situations. Yikes.)
The Clippers game was one such loss. Credit to LA’s Nic Batum for making a clutch shot but the subsequent overtime loss illustrated a season-long issue. The Knicks are 3-6 in overtime games, they’re -11 overall in overtimes and have seen their offense come to a complete halt on several occasions, failing to score ten points in three of the nine overtime periods played.
Their three wins have come against the LaMelo Ball-less Hornets, Bulls and funnily enough, the Boston Celtics thanks in large part to Jaylen Brown’s two late misses at the free-throw line. Those opponents are a team they should have beaten in regulation, the worst clutch team in the league (by far) and then one of. if not the best, team in the league. Meanwhile, they dropped overtime games to the Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trailblazers without Damian Lillard, the Dallas Mavericks, the Toronto Raptors, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Clippers.
Of these games, how many could it be said that the Knicks had the best player on the floor? Certainly in their wins against the Hornets and Magic. Anfernee Simons and Jeremi Grant outplayed Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle, scoring 38 and 44 points respectively to Brunson and Randle’s 32 and 23. But on the whole of the season, the Knicks players seem to have put together stronger campaigns than the two Blazers. It was a similar situation with Toronto too, as Randle and Pascal Siakam are both All-Stars and Brunson was right at the edge of the conversation. However, the answer to the aforementioned question of “Do the Knicks have the best player on the floor?” would be a decisive no in the rest of their overtime losses. Therein lies the problem, there is the missing piece.
The Knicks do not have a Ja Morant, a Luka Doncic, a Lebron James or Kawhi Lenoard. It’s an obvious statement, but the addition of Brunson this year shows just how much an infusion of talent does for a team. And while Brunson and Randle have given Knicks fans everything they could have asked for from them, neither are suited to be a true number-one option and these overtime losses and these blown leads late in games are the true harbingers of this fact. Their inability to score down the stretch means they can’t go bucket for bucket with the top teams has cost them games and is likely to make April much more difficult for New York. Brunson is the best point guard the Knicks have had in over a decade, but he came into his own as Robin to Luka’s Batman. Randle’s an All-Star but we’ve seen the ceiling for a team built around him and it’s not as high as Batman’s.
It’s frustrating seeing how close this team is to breaking into the next tier of teams in the Eastern Conference. But barring an embarrassing postseason performance, like being eliminated from the play-in by a lower seed or a totally unceremonious sweep. it would be hard to consider this season a major letdown. The Knicks have been good. Not great, but not bad. They’ve been good and, after years of being terrible, I can absolutely live with good.
However, Gotham still needs a Batman, and there was a 26-year-old from New York who would have been perfect. He’s helped to turn last season’s nine seed into this year’s four seed. Donovan Mitchell is water under the bridge, but this Knicks’ season shows that they still need someone who brings what he does, especially when trying to close out close games. Hopefully, they’re able to successfully close out the season as constructed, but any success this year shouldn’t prevent them from pouncing on a similar opportunity should one arise in the offseason.
In the meantime, Tom Thibodeau can cut down on the crunch-time isolations. As great as Randle’s midrange fader has been, the Knicks finally have a point guard. A Brunson-Randle pick-and-roll isn’t too much to ask for. make the defense react to something rather than just waiting for the moment they send the double. A top-tier talent may be the difference between the Knicks and this year’s title contenders, but a few ugly end-of-game possessions could be the difference between a play-in exit and a second-round appearance.