The Knicks’ not-so-great West Coast trip taught them some valuable lessons that they can use as the playoffs approach.
The West Coast of the United States is approximately 3,000 miles from New York City. Every season, the New York Knicks make that trek to the other side of the country to play several games against a smattering of good, bad and ugly teams that the Western Conference hosts.
This year, the expectations were high for what is typically the doldrums of the regular season for the Knicks. They’ve not only defied expectations when it comes to whether or not they’d make the play-in, let alone the playoffs, but they have so much to root for — depth, a young core, and two stars in Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson to rely on in battles over by the Pacific.
But, the West Coast trip has come and gone, with the Knicks going 2-2 over that span. They dropped two games they had fought their way back into just to collapse at the wrong time and won two games by doing what they do best: playing good defense in the paint and getting downhill to score by any means necessary.
What could they learn from the trip that can carry into the postseason and prevent the types of losses they experienced in Sacramento and Los Angeles?
Take advantage of second-chance opportunities
Since the addition of Josh Hart to the Knicks via trade, their offensive rebounding has gone from being great to spectacular. They rank second overall in the league in offensive rebounds per game at 12.7, and they average 16.6 second-chance points per game, also ranked second in the league.
In their two losses to the Kings and Clippers, New York could not for the life of them take advantage of the numerous second chances they were receiving from Hart, Mitchell Robinson and Immanuel Quickley. It made it next to impossible for them, as a result, to catch up to either team down the stretch as they continued to squander their chances at getting back into the game.
For the Knicks to consistently score, especially without one of their two most reliable players on offense like they were for all four games with Brunson out, they’ll need to take advantage of every little mistake the opposing defense is making. This is especially true in the playoffs, with the margin for error shrinking even more. New York is excellent at taking those opportunities but was falling flat for the entire road trip because they were settling for three-pointers that were not landing or layups in a packed paint. This most likely won’t be as bad of an issue for the rest of this season as it was on the trip, but it is something to keep an eye on even in Brunson’s return to the starting lineup from injury.
Isolation will not always work
Another area that the Knicks rank fairly highly in across the league is their offense. They’re fifth in offensive rating, but dead last in assist percentage. How can they score so efficiently while not passing the ball?
The answer: they have Randle. The All-Star forward is not only averaging 25.2 points per game, which leads the team, but he is averaging 6.7 pull-ups per game. He’s fairly efficient with that shot, making 40.2 of them, but it often leads to a ton of isolation play from him and that ends up leading the offense.
Randle does not do this nearly as often as he did last season since the arrival of Brunson in the offseason to help facilitate ball movement amongst the Knicks, but it’s still a very dominant form of New York’s offense to both help get Randle going early and to draw attention away from their other shooters like Brunson, Quentin Grimes, Quickley and Hart.
During the road trip, with Brunson gone, Randle was more often than night trying to put the team on his back just as he did last season and the year before that. As a result, the offense stagnated when it really needed more of a flow to find anyone with a hot hand. It led to his frustration boiling over during the Clippers game when New York could not hit the ocean from the coastline. Because they were spending so much time placing the ball in his hands as well as Quickley’s expecting one or both to finally hit their shots, they never got set during those losses on offense.
The Knicks have to start moving the ball more if they want to give opponents a fresh look come playoff time. Using Randle as a way to draw attention from defenses and making them pay with his passing is paramount to their ability to be successful once the first round starts. As of now, the old Atlanta Hawks playbook used in their 2020-21 campaign that saw Randle completely shut down on offense could very well work against this team, albeit with less success given that they have just as good of a shooter in Brunson on the floor with Randle. But, if their isolation-heavy sets showed anything in those two losses, it was that they are feeding right into what teams are expecting them to show.
Consistency from RJ Barrett & Quentin Grimes
Barrett and Grimes, both starters for New York, bring different skills to the court in games – Grimes is known for his defensive prowess and ability to get very hot from three-point range while Barrett is more known for his strength when driving downhill and his finishing.
Both of these skill sets waxed and waned during this trip. In the Knicks’ loss to the Kings, Barrett was solid with 25 points and seven rebounds, and Grimes shined later in the contest finishing up with 19 points. Despite that loss, though, there was some hope to be mined from their performances as the Knicks kicked off their trip with that game against Sacramento. It seemed like both would be able to help Randle carry the load of a Brunson-less starting lineup and help to bounce back against the Clippers in their next game.
Instead, the duo scored just 18 points combined. Barrett had nothing going for him, while Grimes at least played good defense when his shot stopped falling. To be fair to both players, the LA game was ugly all around — New York went just 7-31 from deep and shot 35.6 percent from the field overall. But, both were expected to make that leap into the game after such good performances against the Kings. That has been the case for much of this season with both Barrett and Grimes – you hope for consistency after they string together a stretch of solid play, only to let you down.
Barrett, it feels, has cracked some code when it comes to his scoring over the last several games. He is averaging 21.8 points per game over his last five and is playing better defense than he had been earlier in the season. He has been trying to score more in the paint and has been looking to be a facilitator, both of which have benefited the Knicks on offense. With Grimes, it feels like he has been given Barrett’s role from last season. He is glued to the corner of the floor where he is expected to be open for either an open three-pointer or to drive quickly into the paint to collapse an opposing team’s defense.
Grimes’ three-point shooting ability was well-documented and much-touted last season. This year, it does not feel like he’s as automatic from deep as he previously was, and it has forced him and New York to rely on his quick first step and his propensity for getting Robinson involved on offense to carry his weight.
Both obviously can contribute to a winning team, but they struggle with maintaining themselves and their game for large stretches in the same way that Brunson, Randle, and even Quickley have been able to do. They are key to the Knicks’ success in the postseason, and cannot leave the court without having contributed something meaningful on either end of the floor when that time arrives soon.
New York is solidly in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with a team that feels like the best its been since the Carmelo Anthony years. This road trip is a blip on what has otherwise been an amazing, expectation-exceeding season for New York. For their last 10 games in this regular season, we will see if they learned anything from their losses, and wins, on the West Coast and will apply anything new to their strategy to combat those weaknesses and uplift those strengths shown.