The New York Knicks must have known what was coming.
Jaylen Brown drained a foreboding 3-pointer on the Boston Celtics’ first possession of the game. Jayson Tatum hit one the next time down. Boston has turned should-have-been competitive games into 3-point procession lines. Nearly three weeks into the regular season, no one is outshooting the Celtics. They hit 27 more 3s in Saturday’s victory at Madison Square Garden.
The Knicks could have defended the on-fire Celtics as literally as possible. They could have sprayed Sam Houser in the face with an extinguisher as he rose from the corner; they could have enrolled Grant Williams into a mandatory class, hoping he would stop, drop and roll; but the ball still probably would have gone through the hoop. It’s been that kind of season for Boston.
But it’s also been that kind of season for New York, which strolled onto the court Saturday with more kerosene than closeouts.
Heck, we all could have seen this coming.
The talk of the Knicks defense these days surrounds Mitchell Robinson, the rim-protecting center who will miss at least a week with a sprained right knee he suffered Friday in Philadelphia, the team announced. No Robinson means less command of the paint. But the Knicks have a subtle and just as damning issue that’s lasted all season and that played to Boston’s strength this weekend. They are allowing the second-most wide-open 3-pointers per game in the NBA thus far, according to Second Spectrum.
They give up too many in transition. Teams are scooping up steals and streaking the other way for layups or spot-up deep balls. And once opponents get into their half-court offense, in-rhythm jumpers are coming too often because of a more niche issue: A Knicks player made a mistake while defending a screen.
For example, take the aforementioned Tatum 3-pointer. RJ Barrett guarded Tatum to start. Brown approached the top of the key for a run-of-the-mill pick-and-roll with the All-Star wing, bringing his man, Julius Randle, up with him. Randle sagged back as Barrett departed for Brown, and Tatum, one of the world’s most-dangerous pull-up shooters, walked into an unimpeded 3.
Wash, rinse, repeat — 27 times.
A moment like that wouldn’t be so notable if the Knicks weren’t washing, rinsing and repeating their mistakes, too.
The Knicks are struggling against all kinds of screens. Their communication on pick-and-rolls has been iffy for nine games. They allowed two wide-open, first-half triples to Boston because of sneaky back-screens. On one of those plays, Isaiah Hartenstein appeared to call out that a pick was coming with ample time to adjust, but Derrick Rose didn’t react. On another, Immanuel Quickley and Evan Fournier got caught sagging too far into the paint and Fournier couldn’t navigate around the screener back to the perimeter.
It happens again. And again. And again. And this isn’t just a Celtics thing.
Part of the reason Cleveland Cavaliers big man Kevin Love went off against the Knicks last weekend was due to these same issues. Love picked and popped the Knicks to death; all the while, New York was discombobulated.
“The idea is you don’t want the guy with the ball to get a shot in that situation, but you also don’t want the screener to get a shot,” Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said last week. “We lost him some in scramble situations.”
The Knicks defense has had inspiring moments. Robinson has controlled the paint for quarters at a time. He and Jalen Brunson have been the defense’s most-reliable screen-and-roll combination. Hartenstein is usually in the proper places. Quickley is dependable. Cam Reddish seems like he’s on the verge of a step forward defensively. He’s been more disciplined this season.
But the hits keep coming far away from the paint.
The Knicks are allowing the most 3-point makes and 3-point attempts in the NBA.
Love got a number of his 3s because he messed with the timing of his screens. Sometimes, he’d hold onto one for longer. In others, he’d jog toward Cavaliers wrecking ball Donovan Mitchell and act as if he was going to set a pick, then pop out to the 3-point arc — an act referred to as “slipping” a screen. Mitchell is a horrifying shooter off the dribble when he gets hot, as he did against the Knicks that night. Defending those two in any action is no easy task. Cleveland’s offense right now is a Ferrari. But the Knicks have been about as graceful with slips as Mario on a banana peel.
Messing with the timing of the screen can throw off the rhythm of the Knicks’ defenders.
Look at how much space Love creates on this four-point play and how frantically Barrett closes on him:
That is the same defensive combination that guarded Brown’s first 3 of the Celtics game: Barrett and Randle.
Boston attacked Randle with screens all night with 17 3s coming after actions involving him defending a pick. The Celtics made 10 of them.
And that Tatum pull-up? Take a look at Brown’s screen. He slipped it.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
(Photo of Julius Randle and Jayson Tatum: Wendell Cruz / USA Today)