BasketballRegional Sports

Knicks need more from their defense

Photo: Nathaniel Butler/NBAE

Knicks president of basketball operations Leon Rose and Knicks advisor William Wesley focused on adding more offense this offseason after it petered out against the Atlanta Hawks in the playoffs. Julius Randle had nothing left in the playoffs, and the supporting cast offered nothing.

Rose and Wesley hoped to get Damian Lillard from the Portland Trail Blazers, but it never happened. They settled with signing Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. They also drafted Quentin Grimes in the first round and Miles McBride and Jericho Sims in the second round.

11 games into the Knicks season, one thing is abundantly clear: The Knicks may have sacrificed defense for offense. This explains why the Knicks are 7-4 after a 103-96 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday night at Wells Fargo Center.

Too often so far, the hungry, overachieving teams such as the Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers have been able to torch the Knicks guards by making shots from downtown or beating them man-to-man in the paint. It’s like watching the Knicks of the past 20 years, in which defense was optional and players took liberties to torch them.

The Knicks blew an 11-point fourth-quarter lead against the Boston Celtics on Opening Night on their way to a 138-134 victory in double overtime. They blew a 13-point lead against the Chicago Bulls on Oct. 28 and survived by taking a 104-103 victory at Chicago.

On Monday night, they blew a 19-point lead over the 76ers by being outscored 25-14 in the third quarter. The Knicks took a 72-69 lead at the end of the third quarter. With the team coming off a 126-109 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday night, there was a thought process the 76ers can come back and finish them off with the way they were shooting 3s to get back in the game.

But then the Knicks did something about it in the fourth quarter. They played defense. They made the 76ers work at their shots. They forced them to miss 3s. They won the game on defense.

It started with Alec Burks steal that set Immanuel Quickley to shoot a 3-pointer, giving the Knicks an 81-75 lead. Then, Derrick Rose intercepted a pass from Shake Milton to set RJ Barrett to shoot a 3-pointer, giving the Knicks an 89-82 lead. The defense set up a 12-3 run in the fourth to help the Knicks hold off the 76ers surge in the end.

There’s something to be said about defense winning games and championships. It helps a team hold off rallies. It helps a team give a boost to survive back-to-back nights. It helps a team be in games. It helps a team toughen them up.

It’s what made Pat Riley’s Knicks teams so good all these years in the 90s. It’s the identity Tom Thibodeau recreated since he was hired as the Knicks head coach. He knows the importance of what defense can do from being an assistant to Jeff Van Gundy back in the late 90s.

Yes, offense has become the norm in the NBA with 3-pointers being all the rage. It’s why Thibodeau, Rose and Wesley emphasized the necessity of having his team working on 3s this offseason. They know the Knicks can be potent offensively by shooting from downtown, which is why they signed Walker and Fournier this offseason.

But one has to wonder how much defense will be sacrificed. Kemba Walker can’t seem to guard anyone anymore. He often gets beat by shooters from watching him. He is slow to keep up with others. Thibodeau won’t say it publicly, but deep down, he would have preferred to hold on to Reggie Bullock since he knows what he has in him unlike Walker.

With Walker’s knees being a question mark, who knows what offense he can give? He had a couple of good games offensively, and that was it. It was a risk to sign him as it is. If he can’t shoot, he is going to be useless because he can’t defend.

It’s a dilemma for Thibodeau. He is more of a defensive guy. He knows full well that there is a risk to sacrificing defense. It already showed in some games. Teams are not afraid to jack up shots or go one-on-one against the Knicks anymore. Other teams are successful in getting transition points.

Again, it’s 11 games. No team is jelling this quickly after 11 games, though the Golden State Warriors beg to differ with their 9-1 surprising start.

But this is something to think about unless the Knicks do something about it the rest of the season. In a way, this win was encouraging because the Knicks grinded it out on defense down the stretch. If they didn’t do that, they would have lost this game to a team that did not have Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle and Isaiah Joe due to being tested positive for COVID-19 along with Ben Simmons being out for personal issues.

The Knicks can talk all they want about putting a premium on offense.

But if they are going to be a playoff team that wins in the playoffs, it will be because of their defense.

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