Friday, June 2, 2023

Knicks lose third straight despite revamped lineup; New York’s once-vaunted defense continues to struggle

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It seems like ages ago that the New York Knicks opened the 2021-22 season with a 5-1 record. Gone are the halcyon days of the bing bong rallying cry, replaced by boos Saturday as the Knicks dropped their third straight game to fall below .500 at 11-12. The 113-99 defeat at the hands of the Denver Nuggets dropped the Knicks to 5-8 at Madison Square Garden and out of the top 10 in the Eastern Conference. 

Picking a single culprit for the slide would be impossible. The Knicks recently removed disappointing free-agent addition Kemba Walker from the rotation, but even a revamped lineup hasn’t fixed what’s ailed this team. The fourth-ranked defense that carried New York into the playoffs last season has fallen to No. 24 thus far this season. 

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“We’ve got to go home and really take a long look in the mirror and see how we’re going to change it,” Julius Randle said of the Knicks’ defensive woes. “We know we can do it. We’ve done it. We’re in a funk right now. It’s hard, it’s tough, it’s not fun. But we have the ability and the power to change it. And it’s really going to be up to us if we want to.”

Equally concerning is the team-wide regression the Knicks have undergone as a team. Their opponents made just 34.7 percent of their wide-open 3-pointers last season. That ranked 29th in the NBA. This season? That total is up to 41 percent, the highest mark in basketball. Randle’s jumper has fallen back to Earth as opponents have adjusted to him as a primary offensive threat. R.J. Barrett, after making over 40 percent of his 3s last season, fell to 22.4 percent in his past 13 games after returning to the lineup from an illness Saturday. Regarding the boos he heard at Madison Square Garden, Barrett soberly pointed out that he’s “heard worse.”

“My rookie year was a lot worse, so nah,” Barrett said. “Every team has a game or a couple games like this during the season, so not too worried about it. We just got to fight.””

The Knicks struggled to a 21-45 record during that 2019-20 rookie season for Barrett, but that was the expectation at that point. Last season’s surprising run to the playoffs changed that. The Knicks entered this season as a projected playoff team and looked the part for the first two weeks of the season. Ever since, their offense has fallen off and their defense has lost whatever made it so special a year ago. If the Knicks don’t course correct soon, they’ll find themselves right back where they were during that rookie season for Barrett: the lottery. 

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