Why are the Knicks struggling to defend themselves?

Knicks quick reserve goalie Derrick Rose unleashed what should have been routine possession late in the quarter by the Milwaukee Bucks, ...


Knicks quick reserve goalie Derrick Rose unleashed what should have been routine possession late in the quarter by the Milwaukee Bucks, then rushed the other way with the ball for a layup last second.

Rose’s astute defensive play reduced Milwaukee’s lead to 16 at the end of the third quarter on Wednesday and prompted the Knicks bench to start invading the Bucks with every possession. Soon the Knicks were in the midst of an exciting comeback, tying the game in the fourth quarter after dropping 24 points in the third.

Rose’s flight was iconic for last year’s Knicks team: energetic, displaying active hands, and not making it easy for the opposing team.

Except the Knicks couldn’t stop the 3-point shot from Bucks goaltender Pat Connaughton, who hit four 3-pointers in the final quarter to keep the Knicks at bay. It was iconic for this year’s Knicks team: unable to sustain the defensive effort and punished from the perimeter by a hot shot goaltender.

The Knicks have gotten into the habit of giving goaltenders big offensive nights this season. On Wednesday, Connaughton hit seven 3s off the bench for 23 points, the most he had scored in a game since October 18, 2017. In the Knicks’ season opener last month, Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics scored a career-high 46 points. The most surprising opposing performance of the year came from Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Ricky Rubio, who scored 37 points off the bench on Sunday. Rubio hit eight of his nine 3’s – this after being a poor shooter for most of his career. There was also the 36-point explosion from Toronto’s OG Anunoby earlier this month. The performances of Brown, Rubio and Anunoby were all career highs.

After a quick 5-1 start, the Knicks came back down to earth, going 2-4 in their last six games. The slide was mainly due to their defense. It’s the reverse problem of last year: they scored at least 100 points in all but one game, and they are ranked fifth in the NBA in offense. After Wednesday’s loss to the Bucks, the Knicks were the league’s 26th best team in defense – also known as his fifth worst. This is a radical change from last year when the Knicks were the fourth best defensive team.

The biggest change was keeping the 3-point shot. Last season the Knicks led the league in 3-point percentage from the opponent, meaning there was no team that was harder to score against from outside the perimeter. Now the The Knicks are 26th.

The Knicks are also give up 41.7 shots from depth per game – the most in the league. Last year they were below the league average, in the last 10. The team therefore gave up more shots from 3 and became worse at defending them, much to the chagrin of coach Tom Thibodeau. The Bucks scored 26 3-pointers against the Knicks, the most ever against the team in franchise history.

Asked Wednesday about the types of 3-point shots opposing attacks get against his team, Thibodeau was blunt: “Well, we don’t want to give up any shots.”

Thibodeau’s irritation is understandable. Over the course of a decades-long coaching career, Thibodeau’s defensive sense has become his signature. During the 2007-8 season, he was the architect of the Celtics’ championship-winning defense. The defense was so good that Celtics forward Kevin Garnett won the Defensive Player of the Year award that season. At Thibodeau five seasons as head coach of the Chicago Bulls, the team has led the league in defense twice and has never finished below 11th place. But in Minnesota, where Thibodeau spent two and a half seasons, the Timberwolves were one of the worst defensive teams in the league every season.

What’s odd about this current defensive spell is that the Knicks brought back most of their players from last year, when they were strong defensively. Plus, Mitchell Robinson, one of the best rim protectors in the league, missed most of last season, but he’s healthy and going.

The biggest change in the roster was the new starting backcourt of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, who aren’t known for their defense but added a much needed punch.

Opposing guards have an easier time bypassing the Knicks’ starting guards and getting into the paint, especially offscreen. This forces Knicks inside defenders, like Robinson and Julius Randle, or Knicks guards to turn around and assist, allowing open fire around the perimeter. Rubio, in particular, took advantage of this. When help didn’t come fast enough, he took an open 3. If that happened, he would use the speed of his foot to get around the defense and easily find glances for others.

Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday and Giannis Antetokounmpo have often been successful in breaking through the Knicks’ perimeter defenses.

“I really can’t put my finger on it,” Rose said. “I think it came from us not taking shots on the other end and then from them putting pressure on us using Giannis and Jrue in pick-and-roll to swing the ball around the corners. I think they hit like three consecutive 3s in the corner. They were just trying to expose us in different ways to make us help or over-help and spray for 3 seconds.

In one streak, RJ Barrett missed a layup and the Bucks immediately bounced back and ran the other way. Walker didn’t pick up Bucks guard Grayson Allen quickly enough in transition. Allen didn’t have to work hard to open up and hit a 3 with Walker at least three feet away from him. Walker didn’t raise his hand.

On the Bucks’ next score, Fournier was engulfed by an Antetokounmpo screen, forcing Robinson to come to the aid, leaving Bucks forward Bobby Portis open for 3.

These are not aberrations. There are other defensive issues for the Knicks that go beyond giving up the Cavaliers. They were below the league average in giving up quick braking points. Last year, they were second. This is particularly problematic as the Knicks are playing at a slightly faster pace than last year, creating more opportunities for opponents to get out and run.

When the Celtics first came to town, Brown regularly lashed out at Fournier, whether in transition or when he easily passed him off screens. Often, Fournier would concede Brown’s shots rather than aggressively defend him, especially beyond the arc. Brown hit eight 3s in this game.

To add to their woes, the Knicks take more 3s than last season, but hit them at a lower percentage. Missed jumps often result in long rebounds and make it easier for teams to start quick breaks.

The Knicks bench also defended better than the starters, in general, judging by the defensive rating – a measure of how many points a team gives up per 100 possessions with these players on the field.

The good news is that this is all reversible. A team doesn’t forget how to play defensively in an offseason and 12 games, that’s not much to do. And as the Knicks showed in the fourth quarter on Wednesday night, the team are capable of playing the stifling defense that became their identity last year. The main issues the team needs to tackle are how to deal with screeners and how to more aggressively hunt open shooters. More effort will help, as Thibodeau said.

But Thibodeau wants to fix the problem immediately, although some may think the Knicks have played too few games to be concerned just yet.

“When it’s 10 games, you say you need 20. And when you get to 20, you say 30. And then once you get to 30, you say 40. And before you know it , the season is over, ”said Thibodeau, referring to the concept with an unprintable word.

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