The calling card is supposed to be the defense.
That’s what Tom Thibodeau has hung his hat on for his entire coaching career. That’s what fueled the Knicks’ impressive fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference in Thibodeau’s first season with the team in 2020-21.
So far, however, that hasn’t been the Knicks’ strength and now they will be without their No. 1 rim protector, Mitchell Robinson, for at least the next few weeks with a sprained right knee. because the calendar remains busy.
“Mitch is a big part of what we do,” said Jalen Brunson.
The statistics tell the story. The Knicks are 17th in the league in defensive rating (112.8), an even worse number if you knock out the last five games — all against teams projected into the playoffs (116.6, 26th in the league). These teams featured stars such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Donovan Mitchell, Dejounte Murray, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown who set the Knicks on fire. The Knicks are allowing 115.9 points per game, which is 23rd, although part of that is their increased pace on offense.
Overall, their 3-point defense percentage isn’t great. They are 12th, granting 35.5%. But that area has deteriorated over the past five games, with the Knicks allowing the opposition to shoot it at 38.7%. In Saturday’s loss to the Celtics, the Knicks allowed 27 3-pointers on 51 attempts, the franchise’s worst mark, and they allowed the Cavaliers to shoot 23 for 50 from long range in a recent loss.
“We have scouting reports, we know what every player is doing,” Obi Toppin said. “Every player in our team should be able to keep 1-5. We are working extremely hard in training. Coach Thibs points it out: the defense is going to win a lot more games than the offense. As soon as we click on the defensive side, I think we are going to be a very dangerous team.
Thibodeau repeatedly pointed to his team’s strong field goal percentage defense — 43.1%, the league’s second-best mark behind the Bucks — as an example that the Knicks defend well for the most part. The problem, he pointed out, is the inability to protect the defensive glass and limit opponents to one shot per possession. That wasn’t a problem against the Celtics – they had just eight offensive rebounds. However, in Friday’s win over the 76ers, Philadelphia had 13 offensive rebounds and the Hawks had 17 last Wednesday. The Knicks are 25th in defensive rebound percentage, a telling stat. Robinson’s injury will only make this weakness more glaring.
It doesn’t look like it’s getting any easier either. Monday night they visit the explosive Timberwolves of Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards followed by the Nets led by Kevin Durant on Wednesday. After a brief reprieve against the rebuilding Pistons and Thunder at the Garden this weekend, the Knicks have a five-game trip to the West Coast that includes games against the Nuggets, defending champions Warriors and Suns.
“I think, moving forward, it’s just communication,” Brunson said. “We have the parts, we have the intent, we have the guys who want to do the job. Now we just need that last piece.
The Knicks have listed second-year guard Quentin Grimes (aching left foot) as questionable for Monday’s game at Minnesota. After missing the first six contests of the season, Grimes played in the next two. He started Friday night but was held off in Saturday’s loss to the Celtics. The left foot has also cost him almost the entire pre-season.