The NBA season is so fluid that a team can go from being among the top contenders to finding themselves battling for one of the few remaining seeds in the push for the playoffs within a matter of days. And the new-look Knicks (16-18) are finding this out on the fly.
Coming off a demoralizing home loss to the Orlando Magic (16-20), Monday night, the Knicks suddenly find themselves in the same air space as the Magic and other Eastern Conference dregs – which is a stark contrast to just a week ago when the Knicks were hovering between the fourth and fifth seed and looked like a legitimate threat to the upper echelon in the conference.
First-year Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek is seemingly at wits end in trying to figure out a way to jumpstart his sagging team. New York has dropped five straight and is 2-8 in its last 10 games. Defense may be the root of the problem, especially considering that the Magic hung 115 points at the Garden -- the same Orlando squad that entered the contest averaging 99 points per game.
As new as the system still is, and as many new faces on the roster (nine), that’s an inexcusable performance by a team that had the city pumped up and the fans expecting a deep playoff run just a week ago. Hornacek knows he needs to do something and admitted that he and the coaching staff are trying to come up with ways to make defensive adjustments. He noted that the team will try to “implement some gimmicks” during practices or may do something more drastic and eye-opening, such as lineup changes and minutes restrictions.
“We're going to have to figure something out,” said Hornacek, who reiterated Monday night’s mantra that he doesn’t think the defensive deficiencies are a lack of effort. “Maybe we’re just not good enough, or maybe we have to start playing some of these other guys more. We might have to mix the lineup up somehow."
Offense has never really been a problem for a Carmelo Anthony-led team, but defense has. Just ask George Karl.
But when it comes down to guarding opposing scorers and getting stops down the stretch, Anthony’s Knicks have been anemic. The early success may have masked those ills, so now it’s up to team’s best players to help find a way to get this team back on track.
Joakim Noah, once one of the premiere defenders in the league, noted that for all the offensive firepower on the roster, the Knicks will only go as far as the team leaders leading by example on the other end of the floor.
“We have three guys on this team that can score with the best of them,” Noah said. “If we can just somehow find a way to build defensively, I think we can really make some noise.”
The only noise right now is Hornacek’s consternation.
The coach said a shakeup is likely coming within the rotation, as he needs to find guys who are willing to play defense and get after it. He reasoned that the bench has earned more minutes and have been playing well since the start of training camp to justify more minutes. And that he may even cut starters’ minutes in hopes of having them fresh down the stretch to be better two-way players.
“I have to find someone to play some defense. You can’t come out beginning of the game [sluggish] like that,” he noted about the Orlando game. “They came out shooting [wide-open]. I think their first three or four baskets were 3-pointers ... We’ve got to have better pride in that.”
The recent criticism from the mild-mannered Hornacek – albeit rather tame – should be a wakeup call for the Knicks. New York has struggled to get stops all season, and they don't seem to be progressing. They’ve allowed an average of 113 points over this five-game losing streak and rank 25th overall in points allowed per 100 possessions. New York hasn't been able to defend in two areas that great teams in today’s NBA thrive – the pick-and-roll and one-on-one matchups -- which is one factor in its struggles on defense. The so-called effort against the Houston Rockets and James Harden’s historic night on New Year’s Eve was a microcosm of the Knicks’ recent futility. Entering that contest, the Knicks sported the sixth-worst defensive rating in the league – hardly a sign that they’re ready to battle the elite. New York currently has the 15th-best record in the league, not necessarily terrible, but rank 23rd in point differential. They’ve also entered this new year under .500 for the fourth-straight season and in 12 of the past 15 seasons overall (excluding the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign).
But there could be a silver lining ahead for the Knicks, as the next seven opponents have a record of at or below .500, with a combined 31 games under .500.
They’ll play 17 games this month, including four back-to-backs, which means if they can’t right the ship this month, it could be another lost voyage for them.
- The Knicks were without Kristaps Porzingis against Orlando. He missed his second straight game due to a sore left Achilles. Porzingis also didn’t practice today and Hornacek said that it’s “unlikely” Porzingis plays Wednesday against the Milwaukee Bucks.