It’s only been six games, which — in a season with 76 contests still remaining, and for a team with five new players in the front court and just as many in the back court since last year — makes it far too soon to draw any sort of concrete conclusions on what the new-look New York Knicks might become this season.
Yet as the Knicks try to figure out exactly what their identity is as a team, perhaps the most consistent thing about them in the very early going of their 2015-16 season has been their inconsistency.
Even from their first game this year, at defending champion Cleveland, the Jekyll and Hyde Knicks showed glimpses of the promise which may yet be in store for them on a far more frequent basis this season, tempered by the stark reality that building to that point may take too long to ever get there in time.
Rallying from a 10-point, first-quarter deficit, New York’s bench provided a needed spark to get the Knicks back in that game. Yet sloppy play, which including 18 turnovers, led to a flurry of easy Cleveland Cavalier baskets and close three-point game at halftime turning into a final result of a 29-point embarrassment for the Knicks.
With the next the next three days off, to study film and regroup, New York responded well in its home opener, getting a strong, team effort while building an 18-point lead and holding off several furious second-half charges from the Memphis Grizzlies for a solid seven-point win which at the time, might have signaled that the Knicks were serious about making Madison Square Garden a pronounced home court advantage.
That notion quickly ended when New York — after poor first-half defense (allowing 64 points) and producing a 10-point fourth quarter offensively, in Detroit, yielded a 13-point loss — returned home the next night and seemed disinterested in guarding the Houston Rockets at home, while giving up 100 points through the first three quarters, on the way to another blowout loss (by 19-points).
After showing that Hyde version of themselves, the Knicks, quite surprisingly reverted back to their Dr. Jekyll form while outplaying a Chicago Bulls team which had been playing well, on the Bulls’ home floor.
Putting the disappointments against Detroit and Houston in the rear view mirror, New York impressively posted 32 points and led the Bulls by nine after the first quarter. After giving that back, the Knicks closed with a noteworthy 33-23 fourth quarter to win by 13 points.
The entire new starting five produced in the way team president Phil Jackson had envisioned when he finished putting that group together over the offseason. Forward Kristaps Porzingis led the way for New York with 27 points one game after failing to score a bucket (in a mere four attempts) against the Rockets, and fellow forward, Carmelo Anthony, complemented Porzingis with 25 points of his own.
Meanwhile, a trio of newcomers — shooting guard Courtney Lee and former Bulls, center Joakim Noah and point guard Derrick Rose (in their homecomings) all played with a sense of unmitigated purpose. Noah had 16 points and a game-high nine rebounds, Rose filled out the stat sheet with 15 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds, while limiting his turnovers to three, and Lee added 17 points while missing just two of 10 attempts from the field.
All seemed well and good with that very nice bounce back win, even into late in the first half of New York’s next game, on an early Sunday afternoon, back at MSG against the young and up-and-coming Utah Jazz.
Porzingis continued his hot offensive play, scoring 14 of the Knicks’ first 20 points, and with he and Anthony each making five of their first six shots from the floor, the duo combined to score 24 of their team’s first 26 points to stake New York to an eight-point lead, and 30-20 after the opening quarter.
As other Knicks scored the next 22 points, New York opened a comfortable 42-29 edge, 5:18 into the second period.
They still led by 10 in in the final minute of the first half, and despite allowing Utah to cut that margin in half with the final five points before halftime, the Knicks enjoyed a cushion because their defense returned, holding the Jazz to just 37.8 percent shooting in the half.
And then the Hyde Knicks showed up again.
New York allowed 65 second-half points on 63.2 percent shooting, including 36 in the final quarter, as Utah turned a slim two-point hole after three quarters into a five-point victory that sent the thus-far erratic Knicks to a dismal 2-4 record, rather than New York being able to build off of all of the good the Knicks showed in Chicago, and come home to get a second straight win and back to the .500 mark.
Continuing to frustrate new head coach Jeff Hornacek — who has been pleading with his players to fight through screens and stick with the players they’re guarding — the Knicks instead reverted to past issues of switching on pick-and-rolls and relying on help that all too often, wasn’t there or arrived too late to stop the Jazz from scoring.
New York also fell into the same bad traps of reaching too much over keeping better principles of playing defense with the feet. That resulted largely in the Knicks having the type of sizable free throw disadvantage which should never happen at home: Utah took 20 more foul shots (29-9) and made 17 more (24-7) through the first three quarters. And New York still had a two-point lead heading into the final quarter. Imagine the much better position the Knicks might have been in at the point had they stuck to their defensive principles, and even to a better offensive attack, trying to get to the line more often than they had before the fourth quarter. They might have been able to withstand Utah’s fourth-quarter charge and come out with a much-needed win.
November games are never “must win” in November, but those types of missed opportunity set a bad early tone when you have new pieces, much bigger long-term goals and you’re playing in an Eastern Conference which last year, had six other teams win at least 48 games, and this year, has just as many clubs with winning records, along with four others at .500 thus far.
Although Porzingis and Anthony finished with 28 points apiece and each had 14 in each half, Porzingis (who went to the bench with two quick fouls in the midst of his first-quarter scoring spree) disappeared for much of the middle of the game, after continuing a recurring problem last year — his inability to stay out of foul trouble and on the floor when he’s otherwise playing very well. He also got outmuscled at each end of the floor at times down the stretch by Utah big man Rudy Gobert, while Anthony, at times, showed his own defensive deficiencies, and at others, heard groans from the Garden crowd when he fell back into his bad, old habits of letting the ball stick in his hands a little too much, rather than keeping it moving.
Above all, the Knicks’ worst attention to detail came on the play that iced the Jazz’s victory, when out of a Utah time out (with New York still having some hope, down five), the Knicks completely lost guard Rodney Hood, who took an inbounds pass, and with the time to hail a New York City cab during rush hour, dunked all alone to push the Jazz’s lead to an insurmountable 108-101, with 35.3 seconds remaining.
Again, it’s very early and there’s plenty of time for the Knicks to figure out a lot of what has plagued them, and to recapture on a consistent basis, the limited good play they’ve shown at each end of the floor.
But Anthony — the one main Knick who’s been in New York through all of the various roster, machinations, coaching and general manager changes as his team has tried (and failed) in vain to build a true contender — has seen this before. And he knows that if the inconsistencies the Knicks have shown over their first six games are not corrected soon, “early” can very quickly become too late to turn it all around and make the season what Anthony, his team and Knicks fans has so much optimism about when Jackson pieced it together over the summer.