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How the Knicks defense is turning around their season

Lineup changes, young guys stepping up, and subtle tactical tweaks have New York’s team rolling

Break up the New York Knicks!

Tom Thibodeau’s team has not lost a game since December 3rd and is the NBA’s hottest franchise. The key to their eight-game win streak has been a complete one-eighty on the defensive end, combined with strong play from their three best players in Jalen Brunson, RJ Barrett, and Julius Randle.

The defense has been suffocating, though. Since the winning streak began, the Knicks have only given up more than 107 points once, and have held opponents under the century mark four times. Over the prior 15 games, the Knicks only held an opponent under 107 once and had yielded over 120 points on five occasions.

Some may point to a lighter schedule as the impetus behind New York’s recent surge in wins, but their defensive improvement has all the makings of being legitimate. They’re now up to 8th in the league in net defensive rating! As far as we can tell, three elements have really changed to propel the Knicks to this recent surge: their lineups, their aggressive schemes, and their collective desire.

Deuce & the young pups

On December 3rd, the Knicks dropped a tough home game to the Dallas Mavericks by 21. Dallas outscored them 41-15 in the third quarter, made 24 3-pointers to New York’s ten, and only turned the ball over 11 times. In their postgame press conference, Thibodeau and several players discussed how a lack of effort is to blame. Brunson went so far as to take accountability on their shoulders and not place it on the coach. “It’s on us,” Brunson said on December 3rd. “We’re the players out there not battling. It’s his job to put us in position, which he’s done.”

Thibodeau didn’t sit back and do nothing, however. After the Mavericks game, Thibodeau benched veteran Derrick Rose (who had played a regular role off the bench) in favor of the young, tenacious defender Deuce McBride. Since that game, Rose has only logged three minutes in a blowout win, and Deuce has taken his spot in the rotation.

Now, the Knicks’ backup backcourt is a devilish duo of McBride and Immanuel Quickly, two fighters who will really get into the basketball. Those two, taking minutes and the role entirely away from veterans like Rose and Evan Fournier, are part of a greater youth movement within the organization that has helped them find success.

McBride’s energy sets the tone in a lot of ways. He’s rarely shooting or looking to score, instead expending all his energy to get into the basketball. His lateral quickness and balance on closeouts are notable, but the willingness to fly around the court and simultaneously be everywhere is what makes him great.

While there are some clunky moments on offense, Jericho Sims has also stepped up to eat some of the backup minutes at the 4. Obi Toppin, the Knicks’ usual backup to Randle, is out with a knee injury, and the roster isn’t flush with great options at the position. Sims has always been an active defender, and his combination of length and athleticism allows him to overwhelm opponents, even when he’s switching onto the perimeter.

How about Sims guarding DeMar DeRozan effectively in space, forcing a kick-out:

Quickley and McBride get into the ball, Sims can switch, and Barrett and Brunson are strong and give effort. But the hero has been the connective tissue of second-year wing Quentin Grimes. Averaging a steal and a block per game over the win streak, Grimes is playing nearly 35 minutes a night and wreaking havoc. Quentin’s mental makeup is fitting for being a star in his role and always bringing intensity. Whether it’s playing for Thibodeau with the Knicks or his college coach Kelvin Sampson at Houston, having an off switch has never been an option.

To win in the modern NBA, a defensive stopper on the wings is almost a must. So many teams have great individual options at that position: Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Luka Doncic, LeBron James, Devin Booker, and so many more. Replacing the 3-point shooting of Fournier with the defensive grit of Grimes has given this team a true defensive identity and that one force to take on star matchups.

Over the weekend against the Chicago Bulls, it was Grimes making the stop on DeRozan in clutch moments:

These young Knickerbockers better be here to stay. The front office has drafted well and identified talent. The common thread between nearly all of them: the ability to pressure the basketball. Prioritizing playing them collectively has rejuvenated the franchise and allowed Thibodeau to turn up the heat schematically.

Being the aggressor

For the better part of his coaching career, Thibodeau has been known as a defensive whiz. He helped construct great defenses with the 2008 Boston Celtics, the Chicago Bulls for years afterward as their head coach, and even out of the gates once he took the Knicks job. He’s known for liking to ice side ball screens, meaning the guards work to prevent the ball from entering the middle third of the floor.

This season, the Knicks are joining in a common NBA trend and forcing teams to the screen. They’re also sending their bigs toward the level of the screen as opposed to sitting back several feet back in the lane. It’s an increase in aggressive positioning that can cause some problems for opposing handlers if done right.

With long athletes like Sims or Mitchell Robinson playing up closer to the screen, pull-up jump shooters have to be worried about a contest and feel less space than they’re used to getting against Drop coverage. The continued ball pressure from the Knicks guards funnels them to the big, and momentary space feels like freedom. They decide to rise up, only to be met by a ferocious spike from Robinson:

The mental game that ensues tortures ball handlers and fools them into leaving their feet to make one decision, only to realize too late that it’s the wrong one. Handlers feel disrupted when they have to make quick decisions about whether to score or pass. Drop and Ice coverage, for as protective of the basket as they are, rarely puts pressure on the driver to dissect anything, and a pull-up jumper is always a comfortable option that’s available.

Playing at the level creates this cat-and-mouse game where handlers leave their feet first and make a decision later, exactly the type of shenanigans a defense should be trying to force.

Like any defensive coverage, there are drawbacks. Playing more at the level means corner defenders need to be tapped in and ready to rotate. Cross matches, offensive rebounding opportunities, and constant scrambles result from a more aggressive style. What’s required, then, is a collective engagement from all five guys to make everything work.

A shift in mindset

A common myth about defense is that it’s exhausting and drains players, thus impacting their offensive performance. The inverse tends to be true, though: playing defense with purpose and aggression provides energy to the team and all the individuals that make it up. While defense always must be a collective effort, the mentality on this Knicks team has switched — making for a more meaningful change than any tactical or rotational tweak that Thibodeau could add. It’s not about what they’re doing so much as how they’re doing it.

Julius Randle on the stingy Knicks defense: "We trust each other. We help each other. We’re in the right position. We’re the aggressor, not them, and it works. It’s contagious."

— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) December 19, 2022

The increased aggression and energy are contagious and even has Randle, notorious for some subpar efforts on that end, locked in. During the key closing moments on Sunday against the Indiana Pacers, Randle switched onto budding star Tyrese Haliburton and contained him on a drive. The stop turned into the game-clinching steal for the Knicks that helped them sustain their one-point lead and regain possession late.

An NBA season is long and filled with twists and turns. There will be injuries, hiccups, moments that cause questions of identity, and external impatience that is felt inside the locker room. The Knicks won’t win every game and will have their ups and downs the rest of the way. But for the better part of the last year, it’s felt like the Knicks have been searching for an identity. They’re a team without a multi-time All-Star, without an elite one-on-one scorer, without rare size or shooting or athleticism.

The identity has been established over the last few weeks, and as the players are saying, the vibes are immaculate. If anything, at least the Knicks now know who they need to be in order to win games.

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