A scrappy Knicks team goes toe-to-toe with the defending World Champions for exactly 22 minutes and 37 seconds on the road.
In the first half of last night’s Unicorn-less matchup between the Knicks and the Warriors, one team clearly stood out. One team dominated the boards, hit the open man, made the right pass, closed out quickly on jump shots, and took advantage of what they were given. One team played textbook basketball.
Remarkably, the Knicks were that team.
Yes, I know, you’re just as shocked as I was.
But they did it, they actually did it. For the first half, the Knicks imposed their will on the World Champion Golden State Warriors. Enes Kanter and Willy Hernangómez(!!) attacked the boards and kept the ball alive. Jarrett Jack kept the pressure on the defense with his mid-range game. Courtney Lee took advantage of a couple of Warrior defensive miscues. Michael Beasley was the man. And Tim Hardaway Jr., although minimized by Kevin Durant, stayed active, drawing the defense’s gravity while allowing his teammates to work.
Everything they did on the court had a purpose to it, which lead to startling results, and everything was dreamy.
Then, in the last 1:23 of the first half, the Warriors ramped up their energy level from zero urgency to high intensity, basically telling the Knicks, “O.K., Knickerbockers, we see you, we hope you’ve had some fun, but enough’s enough.” You see, they have a switch that they can turn on, and it goes to 11. The Knicks’ switch only goes to—maybe—a six. An 8–0 run ensued, cutting the Knicks lead to two at the break.
Eight minutes into the second half, the game was out of reach. The Warriors began playing with a ruthless efficiency that far exceeded what the Knicks were able to accomplish, choreographed by Phil Jackson’s spurned head coaching candidate Steve Kerr, and the man selected right before New York, Steph Curry.
The Warriors missed their share of shots in the first half, generated by an offense that was sputtering with a lack of movement. That flipped in a big way in second half, though, with Steph breaking out with some crafty cuts for open threes, courtesy of KD’s vision (he notched a career-high 14 assists). Draymond started doing Draymond things. The Knicks had no answer defensively. Not many teams do.
The Knicks’ well-oiled offense in the first half gave way to a tension-driven mishmash of bad shots and forced turnovers. The Warriors’ vaunted defense took away what the Knicks wanted and gave them what they deserved: a poo-poo platter of highly contested shots.
The Knicks became a mess, not because they are, but because they were just overwhelmed. But that’s okay; Porzingis’ absence basically foretold the result before the game even began.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t any positives. There were. Here’s what I saw, live from Oakland, from Section 118 at Oracle Arena.
The Smokes Monster
Frank Ntilikina’s length, scrappiness, activity, and intelligence on defense caused trouble for even the Steph Curry’s of the world. They weren’t matched up much, but the Dubs also weren’t able to take advantage of him when it did happen. Our point guard held his own, even causing a turnover on a flubbed pick-and-roll with Kevin Durant, along with a blindside block of a Shaun Livingston drive.
Ntilikina hedges, recovers and deflects a pass from Steph to KD, effectively stopping their pick-and-roll.
Here’s what’s clear from watching him live: On each possession, he plays defense in attack mode, doing everything he can to impose what he wants the offense to do, never giving them a chance to breathe or reassess. His destiny of being an elite-level defender isn’t that far away. We should all be excited.
Tim Hardaway Jr. had a nice game, but the problem with starting him at small forward with Michael Beasley is that he gets matched up against length, which in this case matriculated in the form of reigning Finals MVP Kevin Durant. And there’s not much Tim could do against him. KD has seven inches on him in height, along with his octopus-esque reach, and it looked like Hardaway was content with playing possum in that matchup, keeping the league’s third-leading shot blocker as far from the hoop as possible. That’s smart and selfless.
Extreme size disadvantage for Hardaway Jr.
When Andre Iguodala drew Hardaway’s number, Tim was able to drive effectively on him, as well as nail a couple of jumpers. That’s a workable matchup for Hardaway to be a threat, even with Iguodala’s deserved reputation as a lockdown defender.
B-Easy Does It
Michael Beasley is a frustrating player to watch over the course of an entire season. But on a game-by-game basis, he’s the one player on this team, besides the Unicorn, who can raise his performance to an elite level.
Beasley sets up Draymond after a rip through, getting him to lean right.
He did so tonight against Draymond, scoring on the DPOY on some effective drives and nifty turnarounds. Living in the Bay Area, I’ve had the pleasure of watching Green play in person around twenty times. The man is a force of nature on the defensive side of the ball, truly deserving of every accolade he gets. Whether it was a lack of effort on his part or Beasley’s effectiveness, Draymond was invisible in the first half. I’d never seen that before. Kudos to the Walking Bucket. That was difficult to do.
Joakim Noah played five minutes of action in the second half. He didn’t do much, but what was impressive was the picks he set. He gets wide, he gets physical, and, at times, you could hear it. He absolutely set a tone while he was out there, especially when paired with Ntilikina, giving him a little air when defenses tighten up. It’s something to keep in mind, Jeff. Just saying.
Noah sets a large (and loud) pick for Ntilikina, giving him plenty of open space to work.
Of course, not everything was a positive.
The reason Noah played was because of Willy Hernangómez‘s slow and indecisive play in the second half (plus the absence of O’Quinn and Porzingis). Maybe it was because of rust, or an inability to work his way through the thicket of Warriors defenders in the paint, but he just wasn’t effective. He did have his moments during the first half, hitting the boards hard and scoring on a couple of nice moves around the hoop. We all want to see more of Willy. He really needs to make the most of his opportunities.
Doug McDermott was invisible, both in playing time and even when he played. Granted, this was a terrible matchup for him, but he at least brings gravity and spacing to the lineup, possibly opening up an opportunity for someone else. You know, unlike…
Sir Lance Alone
Lastly, Lance Thomas. Yes, we know how much of a positive he is defensively. We get it. However, it’s also glaring how indifferently the Warriors guarded him on the offensive side of the ball. Iguodala basically played as a free safety, mucking up the middle of the floor, practically daring Thomas to make a play. He did score eight points, including a three from the corner, but the Knicks slogged down on that side of the court with him in the game.
Five Warriors in the lane. Lance Thomas all alone. Iguodala (no. 9) defending him. Hypothetically.
Look, the Knicks had no chance to win this game. But they were able to do some things when the Warriors didn’t match their effort. The offense was powered by a sense of purpose, to find the open man, to make the extra pass, to get the right shot. The ball moved with a democratic flair. They dominated the boards. And the results were an efficient and opportunistic offense that put up 60 points on the league’s second best defense in a glorious 22:37.
The rest was just inevitable.