Following a disastrous 0-4 week, the Knicks faced a daunting upcoming schedule: the 5th place Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday, 1st place Boston Celtics on Thursday and 4th place Brooklyn Nets on Saturday. New York fell out of the coveted 6th seed, and another bad week would almost certainly move them even further away from that spot. But that did not happen, as the Knicks managed a 2-1 record in three down to the wire games against the aforementioned teams.
Knicks' Defense Gets Back On Track
After Mitchell Robinson's injury against the Washington Wizards, the Knicks' defense suffered in a tremendous way. Jericho Sims stepped into the starting lineup, and although he is incredibly athletic, he does not have the length that Robinson does. Isaiah Hartenstein provides similar size, but he does not compare to Robinson's athleticism. Robinson will not be back for a few weeks, so it was up to the backup big men and everyone else to step up on the defensive end.
Matched up against Donovan Mitchell and the Cavs, New York was more than able to step up the level of play on defense. Mitchell shot a mere 9-24 from the field, and the interior defense as a whole stepped up down the stretch against Mitchell. The Knicks forced Mitchell to miss three straight shots at the rim in the final minute of the game, with RJ Barrett blocking one, and Hartenstein stopping him twice, with one being the potential game tying layup with four seconds remaining.
The Knicks also did a great job of limiting Mitchell's counterpart Darius Garland as he only shot 6-17 from the field. With the interior defense being lessened without Robinson, it is imperative that the perimeter defense defends at a high level. New York more than accomplished that against Cleveland, as they won 105-103.
A trip to a 1st place Boston team was due up next for New York, and the game started off about as poorly as possible for the Knicks. Within the blink of an eye, the Celtics held a 25-10 lead as almost every three-pointer Boston took went through the net. However, the Knicks' defense turned up the intensity and made the Celtics work incredibly hard for every shot they took. Boston was evidently impacted by the intensity as they were continuously settling for difficult shots. New York built up a 13-point lead in the 4th, but Boston would not go down quietly.
At the 2:35 mark in the 4th, Julius Randle hit a shot to put New York up 110-102. At this point, Boston turned up the defensive intensity and as a result went on an 8-0 run to tie the game and send it to overtime. To start overtime, Boston scored the first five points and it began to look like this was heading towards a disastrous loss for the Knicks. But from that point on, New York got back to their defensive ways that originally gave them the lead and initiated a comeback.
In overtime, the Knicks held Celtics' star Jayson Tatum to 0-5 from the field. Tatum had numerous opportunities to expand his team's lead, but the Knicks continuously made his shots difficult which gave their offense a chance to bring the game back. Eventually, New York led 118-117, but fouled Jaylen Brown with 7.1 seconds remaining. Up to this point in the game, New York made life incredibly difficult for Brown as he was 8-22 from the field, and only 1-8 from three. And although he was 5-5 from the free throw line, Brown missed both free throws and the Knicks held on to win 120-117.
The one constant between these two games was a heightened defensive intensity level. Most of the time defense will come down to effort, and without Robinson's pure ability the only way for the Knicks to play a high level of defense is through a high level of intensity. That defensive effort continued to Saturday versus the Nets, however the result would not be the same as the previous games.
The Nets got out to a 62-49 lead by halftime, and although the Knicks fought all the way until the end, they were never able to fully close the gap as the Knicks fell 122-115. One of the main talking points that came out of this game was the 4th quarter that Irving had. He played an incredible quarter as he had 21 points on 8-15 from the field and 4-7 from three.
In the eye's of most people, this was an example of the Knicks not having a superstar to match the heroics of Irving. However, what might have been the most important difference in the game was the way the Nets shot the ball from behind the three-point line. The Nets shot a ridiculous 22-40 from the three point line, and although there were certainly opportunities to play better defense, overall the Knicks did a solid job of contesting these shots. Unfortunately, in a long NBA season there are nights where the other team will shoot the ball at a higher level than usual, and that seemed to be the case with the Nets.
Although the Knicks ended the week with a tough loss, the team should be pleased with their recent performances. Going 2-1 in a three-game stretch versus three legitimate title contenders without Robinson is impressive, and it was also necessary. The Knicks are now 27-24 and sit one game behind the Miami Heat for the 6th seed. This upcoming week, New York will get a shot versus the Heat, as well as the Lakers, Clippers, and 76ers.
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