by Deb Seymour
Last season ended on a rather high note for the New York Knicks. They made the playoffs for the first time since 2013 — and despite being eliminated in the first round, as some would say (and to use a common sports trope), “they weren’t even supposed to make it that far.” The postseason series was an exciting one; the opponent Atlanta Hawks won the first game by a very close (two-point) margin, and the game could easily have gone to the Knicks. The Knicks won the second game by nine points; and although the Hawks won the next three games to complete the series, the games were exciting and the Knicks didn’t get outright dominated in any of them.
And so now we find ourselves at the beginning of the 2021-2022 season. What will the Knicks carry into this season that worked well for them last season? What will they have to change to be at least as successful as last season — and potentially, even more successful?
The current season started off with a bang: the first two games were at home and away, and both ended in statement wins for the Knicks. The nationally televised home opener in which they faced the Boston Celtics went to double overtime and was won in thrilling fashion, just before the second overtime buzzer sounded. The second game of the season saw the Knicks defeating the young, ebullient Orlando Magic at their home arena in convincing fashion, with a halftime lead of 65-35 and a final score of 121-96.
And yet, by the third game of the season, which was an infinitely winnable game by the Knicks but saw them defeated badly in the fourth quarter — at home in Madison Square Garden — by the same Orlando Magic they had dominated two days earlier, the Knicks looked too complacent through the first half; almost like they were playing playground hoops for fun. And the Magic sure showed them up in the second half — and in particular, in the fourth quarter. The Knicks had fallen in love with the three-point attempt and weren’t driving to the basket until late in the fourth quarter; and by then it was too late. Though they had many significant steals in the first half, they couldn’t convert them all into the three-pointers they kept trying for…and the layup, jump shot, and dunk games came way too late, timewise, to shift momentum in their favor.
Although the third game of the season was a letdown, some stats from last season, unsurprisingly, support what we saw. Last year’s Knicks’ overall three-point percentage was .392, while opponents’ overall three-point percentage was .337. On the other hand, last year’s Knicks’ two-point percentage was .490, as against opponents’ two-point percentage of .512. In other words, what we saw in the home match-up against the Magic may have been partly Knick strategy; but it may also partly have been reversion to some of the tactics that didn’t work so perfectly for them last season. (Stats source: BasketballReference.com)
The Knicks’ overall field goal percentage last year was .456, and their opponents’ field goal percentage was .440. That was good for a 7th overall net rank in the league. The Knicks are pretty good when they’re on the move, though a higher percentage is certainly something to strive for this season. Below are more of the team stats from the 2020-2021 season:
What immediately jumps out is the Knicks’ net rank in terms of personal fouls last season. 30th in the league is definitely not a stat to aspire to. Now, we have to caveat this with the statement that not all personal fouls are bad fouls; the context in which they happen in the game decides which are the good ones and which are the bad ones. But nevertheless, the stat represents an awful lot of opportunity for shooting from the free throw line for the opposing team. It also represents quite the opportunity to have your best players foul out of games.
Your bench players tend to have the least court time; and by default, tend to foul out less. And yet, strategically, if the coach wants the best players on the floor in the crucial minutes at the end of the game, a starting player may be pulled and replaced for too many minutes earlier in the game — just to prevent them from fouling out. And although there’s evidence that coaches tend to overreact to players’ fouls in basketball (see https://paytonsoicher.medium.com/the-real-trouble-with-foul-trouble-4718ccc4b240), for the most part, it’s not what you want.
Most of the other stats cited above place the Knicks roughly in the middle of the pack last season, league-wise. Defensively, one stat to hone in on is their steal percentage, particularly since we’ve already seen so many instances of successful steals in the early portion of the 2021-2022 season. Although they may have come in 10th in net league ranking for steal percentage last year, the eye test already has them potentially beating that this year. Or, at the very least, I’ve been impressed with the number and technique of the steals thus far in the first four games of the season. Here’s my thinking on the matter: if you aren’t (yet) able to be in the top five teams in the league in preventing the other team from scoring, at least take the ball away from them as early and as often as you can.
Which brings us to last night’s game four, played at home at the Garden against the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers. The Knicks broke a four-year, 15-game losing streak to the Sixers in an impressive, no prisoners taken game in which they had home court advantage. If last night’s game isn’t a confidence booster for this year’s Knicks team, it’s not clear what would be. They played a pretty clean game, and held commanding leads throughout most of the four quarters. When the Sixers started to show more life in the second half, the Knicks threw all their weapons at them and dominated once again. They had been driving more to the net for two-pointers earlier in the game, but then got back to their three-point strengths later in the game and executed. Really executed. It was as statement a rebound win after an embarrassing loss as any team could have this early in a season. And the Garden fans knew it.
So what can we expect from the Knicks going forward this season? They’re undoubtedly going to work to continue to capitalize on their three-point game. And on their steal game. Where they might want to show some more heft is in their overall defensive game, their ability to execute on their rebound shooting game, and their strategic foul game. The best teams in the league can rely on their defense when the points just aren’t coming. But however the Knicks strategize and execute, it promises to be an exciting season, and yes — basketball is once again alive and well in Manhattan.