With the upcoming November schedule, this was another big win for the Knicks. After a mostly dismal first half on both ends, they came out fired up and determined, shaking off a third quarter filled with wide open bricks to make a massive run in the 4th with a lineup featuring mostly bench players (you read that correctly).
There were three major stories to unpack here -- the Knicks abuse of the Nets with double drag screens in transition, the Nets insistence on trapping ball handlers in the pick and roll, and the Knicks 2nd half defensive performance.
The first half was mostly a disaster. Derrick Rose was the Knicks best player through 24 minutes, and unfortunately, this was one of those nights where plus-minus won't reflect that. He continued to push the pace, collapse the defense, and kick out the rock to create easy shots for others. He missed a wide open Porzingis a couple of times (Rose has been doing a better job finding KP, but there's still work to be done), and took some questionable shots, but overall had a stellar performance.
Meanwhile, the rest of the squad couldn't get anything going at all, particularly Carmelo Anthony, who struggled in isolation and got his first points thanks to some quality team offense (the double drag screens I alluded to earlier -- more on that in a bit).
A late run kept the Knicks within 5 at the half, but the second half was exponentially better.
Coming into the second half, New York generated a lot of open looks, but could not get them to fall. Courtney Lee in particular, missed two wide open treys, which does not happen often. It was looking bad -- it seemed like the Knicks were physically incapable of playing good defense and good offense at the same time.
Fortunately, that was when Carmelo decided to take over, scoring on 6 out of 7 isolation possessions to get the Knicks back in the game. That's going to happen; he's one of the best isolation scorers in NBA history. There was still some stuff hidden in that stretch that was reminiscent of the bad, ball-watching Knicks teams, though. Watch as the entire team focuses on getting Melo the ball, allowing Brooklyn to key in on the action. Bogdanovic does a nice job fronting the pass and making Melo work to get it. Once the ball finds its way over, he only has 7 seconds to make something happen.
A red-hot Carmelo doesn't care how much time he has to get up a shot, but you'd like the process to be a bit better in order to make things easier for him and keep the rest of the Knicks offense moving. They did a much better job a couple of plays later, moving players and the ball to loosen up the Nets defense before letting Melo go to work. Doing so provides an easier entry pass, and it can also generate opportunities for other players if the defense loads up on denying the ball. Occasionally, this kind of setup can generate a head start for Melo before he even touches the ball. Here, Melo runs through some basic offense before he gets the rock; doing so actually gives him an additional 5 seconds on the shot clock, with a much lower risk of a turnover. The Spurs run similar actions for Kawhi isolations all the time.
After that stretch, Hornacek brought made some surprising moves by bringing in Sasha Vujacic and Mindaugas Kuzminskas (shortly followed by Willy Hernangomez, with Melo and KP mixed in throughout the final run). The Knicks actually closed out the Nets starters in preseason with a lineup similar to the one they ran last night, but it took balls to try it in the regular season, and it paid off:
Yes, that is Sasha Vujacic with a +23. You may not ever see that again in your life.
Anyway, the success of the Euroballers on offense hinged on a couple of trends that were present all game. Firstly, the Nets mindlessly trapped ball handlers in the pick and roll all game long, for no apparent reason. On top of that, the Knicks ran double drag screens early in possessions at LEAST 10 times, to great effect.
Trapping is usually reserved for a couple of different scenarios -- ridiculous shooters off the dribble, especially when hot, in order to get the ball out of their hands (you'll see this a ton from teams playing the Warriors and Blazers), or when trying to generate TOs thanks to a group of long, rangy, athletic defenders who disrupt passing lanes with ease (Bucks). It can also serve as a change of pace coverage to keep the offense from getting in a rhythm.
None of those things were true tonight. The Nets trapped Lee, Rose, Jennings, and Vujacic. Exactly zero of those players are much of a threat shooting the rock off the dribble, and none of them were red hot, either. If the ball handler can squirm out of the trap and get the ball to another player, trapping puts the rest of the defense in a perilous position.
That trap fails miserably, as Rose is able to get the ball out to Noah, and it's over the second the pass is made to Jo. Because Noah's man is out on the perimeter thanks to the attempted trap, KP's defender HAS to help into the lane to prevent an easy dunk, which in turn gives Porzingis an open cutting lane to the rim. Noah correctly turns to read the defense, and all of a sudden, the Knicks get a dunk off two simple passes.
I found like, ten examples of the Nets screwing up on defense because of the trapping, so I won't include them all. If you want to see more, check out this thread on Twitter.
The Knicks were also able to generate a ton of open shots by running double drag screens early in possessions.
This set calls for a roll man (usually Noah or Hernangomez) and a pop man (KP or Melo) to set screens at the top of the key for the ball handler. As the ball handler clears the screens, the roll man rolls, and the pop man pops. Simple action, but very difficult to defend with the offensive skillsets on the Knicks roster. The Nets were unwilling to switch, and the Knicks took full advantage.
Even when the initial action fails, the difficulty of defending this play leaves the defense scrambling, which leaves openings for players to attack after the set play has expired. Here, Jennings is able to get a step on his defender (and make an incredible pass to Willy) because of how the defense contorted to defend the initial action.
Again, the Knicks shredded the Nets with this set so effectively that it would take up half this article to show all of them. See more here.
At one point, the Nets gloriously combined both of the aforementioned failures in two spectacularly bad defensive plays that allowed Porzingis to cash in on two consecutive treys. Watch as Porzingis' man leaves him alone (this makes no sense at all) to trap the ball handler both times, leaving him two completely uncontested looks. KP should have been closer to the 3 point line, but when he's draining 28 footers, it's all good.
Those two trends won the game for the Knicks on offense. Give the players credit, but Jeff Hornacek deserves a lot of praise for his decision to leave in the bench unit that was rolling. After getting flack for playing full bench units, he dug deep down into the reserves and got them to produce on both ends of the floor. The Knicks basically closed this game out with Jennings, Vujacic, Kuzminskas, and Hernangomez, with KP and Melo staggered within that lineup to give an extra scoring punch. Well done.
Once again, the first half was atrocious. The Nets were getting in the paint with ease, help was late or nonexistent, and the Knicks were having trouble keeping Brooklyn off their spots. The Nets got where they wanted, and were able to execute their offense with ease. The Knicks continued to struggle closing out on the 3 point line, allowing MyPlayer Justin Hamilton to go 4/4 from 3. It was looking like more of the same, as the Knicks had entered the game ranked 30th in defensive rating.
The second half was basically the polar opposite. Thanks entirely to this half, the Knicks jumped 2 spots in defensive rating (the Celtics are now last, and I am laughing so hard). Credit the entire team -- both the starters and bench units did a fantastic job containing penetration and helping without overhelping. They played disciplined, and did an incredible job pressuring the Nets. Ball pressure can be dangerous for undisciplined teams, but when executed correctly, it keeps opponents from getting comfortable and slows down their halfcourt offense. That's what we saw in the second half, and the Knicks did even better by forcing a ton of turnovers (allowing them to get into early offense, where they abused the double drag screens we discussed earlier. Good defense generates good offense, folks). Brooklyn was held to 41 second half points, and finished shooting 41.3% from the field.
Once again, credit goes to both Jeff Hornacek and the players. I don't know what Hornacek said in the locker room, but I bet he was annoyed, because the second half Knicks were an entirely different defensive unit than what we've seen for most of this season.
New York also cleaned up the glass, winning the rebounding battle 60-48; rebounding has been a low-key issue for the Knicks early, so this was good to see. Defensive rebounding has a symbiotic relationship with overall defense as well; the Knicks will rebound better when they defend better.
Playing disciplined and intelligent defense allows the Knicks to stay with their man. When you stay with your man, you put a body on him when the shot goes up, and your team rebounding improves. On the other hand, bad defense forces big men to help, moving them out of position for rebounds. It also forces perimeter defenders to lose positioning on the glass when they help on dribble penetration.
With all that said, the biggest issue on defense is fouling. The Knicks have been fouling like they all have individual contract incentives to give up 10 "bonus" free throws a game. Fouling blew the Utah game, and it kept the Nets alive longer than they should have been. The Knicks need to tone it down; fouling a player who is attacking the rim is forgivable, but touch fouls in off ball or non-threatening situations are not.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
I've ripped on Jennings a ton this season, so he deserves all the credit in the world for this game. He took only 6 shots (1/6), but finished with 11 assists to 4 turnovers (1 of which wasn't his fault -- Maurice N'Dour has hands that are bricks made of other, smaller bricks). Jennings focused on playmaking, as I've asked him to do all season long. This is a great sign. He's settled in nicely, and his focus on playmaking has allowed Hornacek to play Rose and Jennings together in certain matchups.
Make your layups, Brandon. That's two games in a row.
Good defense is the key for this team, and always has been. Good defense will prop up their rebounding, and give them an advantage on offense. I don't see the Knicks being a top 10 defensive unit -- after all, this Nets team was missing Jeremy Lin and his backup, leaving a host of backup ball handlers that are about as threatening as a sleeping gerbil -- but reaching league average will have a ripple effect on the roster as a whole.
Next up, the Knicks have a tough back to back in Boston and Toronto. Boston has struggled early, and rebounding has been a massive Achilles heel for that team -- look for Joakim Noah to destroy the offensive glass. They will most likely be missing Jae Crowder, and they might be missing their big offseason acquisition, Al Horford. Without those two guys, this is a winnable game. Keeping Isaiah Thomas in check will make or break this game.
Toronto is a tough out, as DeMar DeRozan has looked like Michael Jordan early in the season. He's feasting on a ton of ridiculously difficult midrange pull ups, he gets to the line, and he's a freak athlete. He's currently leading the league in points per game. Kyle Lowry was a low-key MVP candidate last year, and he'll give Derrick Rose a tough challenge.
We're getting a better feel for this team, and it's still quite early. The Knicks have beaten the teams they should (except Detroit, that one was a real bummer) and struggled against elite offensive teams -- overall, a good sign for a team with such little time on the floor together.
Things are looking up. If they can maintain the level of defensive play from the second half of this game, the Knicks will have a great chance to make the playoffs.