Breaking Down the Knicks’ Crunch Time Struggles This Weekend

The Knicks came away from this weekend with two home losses against teams that are virtual locks to make the Eastern Conference playoffs.

If you’re looking for silver linings (I understand if you’re not in the mood), it’s that both games were competitive. Philadelphia and Boston each needed to come through in the clutch to pull out these victories.

Conversely, that means New York let two winnable games slip away. Sure, the most important parts of these games are less about the wins and losses; instead, it’s about the development of our young core. But, it would certainly be encouraging to see that young core pull off an upset win or two and show flashes that they can produce when it’s winning time.

Despite their record of 4-16 while sporting the 27th ranked point differential in the league (per Cleaning The Glass which eliminates garbage time), New York has surprisingly seen a lot of crunch time action this year. According to NBA.com, which defines “clutch” situations as the score being within five points with five or fewer minutes left, the Knicks rank 10th in the league in total clutch minutes played. Their record is 3-8 in games featuring clutch minutes and they are -16 in 43 such minutes.

Considering they possess the league’s worst offense, it may surprise you that, when it matters most, the Knicks’ primary issues have not come on that end. They’ve actually managed to score a respectable 107.7 points per 100 possessions in the clutch, which is right around league average. That said, offensive rating doesn’t tell the whole story. There are unquestionably issues around team identity, play calling and execution on the offensive end during crunch time.

New York’s biggest problem has (somewhat surprisingly) come on the other end. Their crunch time defensive rating of 120 points per 100 possessions ranks 25th in the league and they routinely fall apart defensively during the most crucial times.

Here’s a look at what went right and (mostly) wrong in the two games this weekend.

76ers @ Knicks (95-101) L

After having led most of Friday night’s game, there were a few areas you could point to as reasons for this loss: the third quarter during which the Sixers outscored the Knicks 31-17, and the fact that New York shot 19-of-33 (57.6%) from the free throw line.

All valid. But, the bottom line is that the Knicks had yet another chance to pull one out in crunch time and they came up short. Here’s a breakdown of the biggest plays down the stretch.

This took place with 5:04 remaining, so it wasn’t technically crunch time, but it was close enough. With the score 81-80, James Ennis drew a three-shot foul on Julius Randle. As Mike Breen noted in the broadcast, this should’ve actually been an offensive foul on Ennis for kicking his leg out and initiating the contact:

Instead, Ennis knocked down all three foul shots and established a four-point lead. It’s easy to point to the officials and say the blame falls entirely on their shoulders. I’d listen to that argument. But watch Randle in the moments leading up to that foul. He starts on Mike Scott in the corner. Then, when Ennis cuts through and is being defended by Frank, Scott relocates to the wing.

Instead of following Scott, Randle plants himself in the paint, so Frank is left to defend both Scott and Ennis. Frank spins around and sees Randle is nowhere in sight, so he runs at Scott. Instead of recognizing that Frank is contesting the shot, Randle duplicates the effort before having to sprint at a wide open Ennis. True, the foul call was bad, but the process leading up to it wasn’t sound, either.

I swear I’m not trying to pile on Randle, but this next clip was a critical moment in the game where the Knicks had just made a nice defensive stop and were poised to take the lead.

Randle thought he saw an opportunity to catch the 76ers’ defense off guard and he floated up a layup that was destined to be swatted off the backboard since before he crossed half court. Maybe if Randle hadn’t walked those first three steps after securing the rebound, he could’ve outpaced Embiid downcourt. But he did, and he couldn’t.

This next play was significant, not just because it put Philly back up by three, but because it fouled out Robinson.

Without Mitch, there was really no one who could stop Embiid. He lived at the free throw line down the stretch and made the most of his opportunities.

For this next clip, I’m lumping in three consecutive offensive plays. Each time, the Knicks ran the exact same set to get the ball in Barrett’s hands, with the intent to get Embiid switched off onto him:

Ntilikina, after receiving a back screen from Barrett, would go to screen the center’s defender. Then, the center would run up to set a side pick-and-roll for Barrett. The first time it caught Embiid off guard and resulted in a nice (though high degree of difficulty) floater from Barrett. The second time, Embiid was ready for Barrett to reject the screen, but Barrett was still able to reset and beat him off the dribble for another nice layup.

Both of those plays are huge for Knicks fans to see. We are allowed to be excited about those. On the third attempt, after Simmons nearly stole the pass from Morris to Barrett, Barrett settles for a long two and misses badly.

I’m a little disappointed that RJ didn’t try to get into the paint and dish, but I’m even more disturbed by the lack of imagination and creativity in Fizdale’s offensive sets. NBA defenses are too good and too smart for you to just run the exact same thing at them every time down the floor. I understand the “do it until it doesn’t work” mentality, but you need to throw little wrinkles into these existing sets to keep the defense on their toes.

The irony is that on the other end of the floor, Philadelphia was running the exact same play over and over: post ups for Embiid. In this one, New York finally throws a solid double team his way:

Ultimately, the Knicks just couldn’t get the stop they needed. On this one, Frank NEEDS to do a better job of staying in front of Harris. He’s our best perimeter defender and he needs to make big plays in crunch time. It doesn’t all fall on Frank, though. Morris, after Embiid passed out of the double team, took too long to get back into the play and completely lost track of the ball. Gibson was concerned about Korkmaz and was late to rotate over.

Regardless of who is to blame, the team needs to find a way to make a stop there. On the Knicks’ ensuing possession, Simmons stole Ntilikina’s inbound pass after an inexcusable sideline out of bounds play. If you really want to see that, you can look it up. I don’t have the heart to clip it here.

Celtics @ Knicks (104-113) L

The Knicks fell apart so thoroughly and so abruptly in this one, that “crunch time” lasted only about 90 seconds. I’ll push the definition of crunch time again and start this at the 6:30 mark.

With the score tied, the Knicks ran an offense so stagnant that it actually became a breeding ground for mosquitos. By the time Smith Jr. finds Randle in the corner, the possession is already concerning. From there, it turns into a full-blown nightmare as Randle throws a lazy pass which gets deflected into the back court. The possession is punctuated by a Randle three attempt that barely grazes the rim. Luckily, the Celtics threw the ball directly out of bounds at their first chance. So, with six minutes left, the Knicks called a timeout and drew up a play. Let’s take a look.

Um. I have a lot of questions. Why is Dotson initiating the offense? Especially with Jalen Brown defending him? What was that play supposed to look like? Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long for the answer:

First, it’s hard not to laugh at Dotson going at Brown for round two. I can’t believe we went back to that well. Ultimately, we were trying to get Kemba switched off onto Randle for an iso (surprise, surprise). The Celtics defense was too swarming and Randle made the wrong decision.

Here’s a look at the very next offensive possession:

This play was just salt in the wound for Knicks fans. It’s a disaster of spacing, communication, continuity…anything that makes basketball enjoyable to watch. No one here is on the same page. It starts as a Portis/ Barrett high pick-and-roll. Then, oh wait..no it’s Randle who is the PnR ball-handler and Smith Jr. is the screener. Then…does Randle have the ball swatted out of his hands and it happens to go directly to DSJ? Am I just seeing things at this point? Meanwhile, Barrett and Dotson are shoulder to shoulder in the corner. I can’t believe all this happened in 24 seconds because it felt like an eternity.

After a couple of legitimate defensive stops, the Knicks had a chance to tie the game with a three with 4:30 left to play, so they ran their trusty sideline out of bounds play:

Watch Dotson in the far corner pointing and trying to direct traffic. Even putting the turnover aside, it looks like Knox just had no idea what play they were running. This was a failure on all levels.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned how the Knicks’ crunch time offensive stats were not overly alarming, but their were worrisome patterns and habits. The end of this Celtics game was all of those disturbing trends being brought to the surface. It feels relevant that coming into Sunday’s game, the Knicks ranked 29th in the league in points per possession following timeouts, per PBP stats. I can’t imagine it improved much after this contest.

I didn’t intend to end this article on a negative note. In crunch time versus Philadelphia, there were bright spots with RJ Barrett’s offensive game. Against Boston in the clutch, however, don’t bother looking for those silver linings. It was complete cloud coverage.

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