As the New York Knicks continue to wind through the early part of their 2015-16 schedule, trying to find solutions to their wildly inconsistent play before the holidays, head coach Jeff Hornacek has already shown just 10 games into his tenure with New York) that he is willing to do whatever may be necessary to spark his team when needed.
The latest example of that came against the injury-depleted Dallas Mavericks (2-7) at Madison Square Garden on Monday night, when Hornacek turned to swingman Justin Holiday to help create a very effective small ball lineup which shook the Knicks (4-6) from their first-half doldrums.
Trailing 23-15 after the opening quarter and 39-36 at halftime, New York dominated the third quarter, 31-12, and never looked back, while cruising to a 93-77 win that moved the Knicks over the .500 mark (3-2) at home and which halted a two-game losing streak which featured some horrid defense during a poor road trip to Boston and Toronto on Friday and Saturday.
Finishing with 16 points, Holiday complemented forwards Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, who each scored a game-high 24 points.
Most of Anthony’s damage came in the decisive third period, when the Knicks’ first scoring option netted 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the floor. Holiday added seven points in the quarter, one in which New York used a 22-4 run, over a seven-minute span, to take a commanding 66-49 lead with 1:15 left in the period.
That margin never got lower than 11 points thereafter and swelled to as many as 23 late in the game.
While Anthony rightfully got the credit for his sharp turnaround from a disappointing four-point first half (on just 1-of-6 shooting), it was Honacek’s smaller lineup, with the 6-foot-6 Holiday replacing 6-foot-11 center Joakim Noah for the entire third quarter, that allowed Anthony to slide into the small forward (4) position and Porzingis to center (the 5 spot), where each player is more comfortable and effective, is able to create favorable mismatches for themselves and operate with much greater efficiency offensively.
“As a 5, I obviously feel more comfortable because [opposing] 5s give you more space,” Porzingis said. “I like it more because I’m more down low, to block shots. As a 4, there are so many teams that have the stretch 4, that like to shoot from the outside, and I have to get out to the shooters, so I can’t really block that many shots or be down [in the paint] to help rebound, too. From that perspective, I like to be more at the 5.”
Starting shooting guard Courtney Lee added, “It helps a lot. When K.P.’s at the 5, whether he rolls or he pops [out], it puts their 5 man in a tough situation. It opens the floor up a lot.”
In the Knicks’ prior home win, New York trailed Brooklyn by five points at halftime before Hornacek unexpectedly went with a unit comprised solely of his club’s four European players, along with American-born guard Brandon Jennings, who has played in Europe before going to the NBA. It paid off, as that group buoyed the Knicks to big second half and a 14-point win.
This time, Hornacek stuck primarily with his regular starting backcourt (including Lee and point guard Derrick Rose) and his normal starting frontcourt (including Anthony and Porzingis), with the one key exception of utilizing Holiday’s athleticism, quickness and high energy over the skillful rebounding and passing, yet more plodding play of Noah.
Once again, Hornacek’s impulses were rewarded.
And so was Holiday, who played the first 15:56 of the second half after being on the floor to score only four points in just 9:27 during the first half.
“We tried to open it up a little bit,” Hornacek said. “We went with K.P. (Porzingis) at the 5 and tried to get our smaller group in there to see if they could give us a jolt, and they did. Holiday played very well, Carmelo had a great second half, as well as K.P.”
Typifying his very solid contributions both offensively and defensively, Holiday blocked forward Harrison Barnes (who led Dallas with 20 points) on an 18-foot jumper from the left wing, then quickly broke out in transition to receive a pass ahead from Porzingis, before Holiday beat the Mavericks’ defense down court for a finishing layup which extended the Knicks’ lead to a sizable 61-47, forcing a Dallas time out with 3:09 left in the third quarter.
“They just wanted me to come in and bring some energy, especially on the defensive end,” Holiday said.
“I can make a jump shot here and there, but the biggest way I can help my team is [with] my effort and energy, and I feel like I showed that tonight. The one thing I can control is my energy. Shots might not fall at times… but the energy and the effort, that’s what I try to bring.
“The whole team kind of picks that up and [provides] that energy also. Hopefully it can be contagious and continue for the rest of the year.”
Holiday, who has been thought of merely as a minor throw-in piece in the trade with the Chicago Bulls which brought Rose (the centerpiece of the deal) to New York over the offseason — before Rose’s ex-Chicago teammate Noah signed with the Knicks shortly thereafter — might ultimately become more than team president Phil Jackson thought he was getting.
In addition to stops in Belgium, Hungary and the NBA Developmental League (after going undrafted in 2011), Holiday has also played for more NBA teams (five; Philadelphia, Golden State, Atlanta and Chicago, prior to New York) than the points (4.4) he’s averaged over his NBA career.
“I’m sure that (unconventional) road helped, but I’ve always been that way. I’ve always brought that type of energy and effort to the game. I’ve tried to, at least. My dad [instilled] that in me a long time ago with how he played… that road helped. It showed me that’s the only way that’s the only way that [I’m] going to be able to do this.”
For now, Hornacek and his staff are measuring Holiday’s value by more than merely statistics, and the 27-year-old and brother of former first-round pick and current New Orleans Pelicans guard, Jrue Holiday, has received high praise for approach to the game from his Knicks coaches and teammates.
“He just continues to work,” Hornacek said of Holiday. “He’s pretty fundamentally sound in terms of things we want to do defensively. I thought he did a nice job on Harrison Barnes tonight. He’s almost always in the right help position, and sometimes those things don’t show up in the stat sheet, but it shows up with the coaches.
“We talk about it all the time — he’s one of those guys that you don’t have to tell him [something] twice… those are little things that I always said about [Hornacek’s assistant coach] Kurt Rambis, when I played with him. He didn’t have things that showed up on the stat sheet, but he helped you win.”
Rose added of Holiday, “He’s a professional… he’s very skilled, he don’t hurt you, he’s great for the locker room, he’s a great guy, and good things come to good people.”
It remains to be seen if Holiday’s breakout game, during which he shot and extremely efficient 6-for-7 from the field and finished a plus-30 — 10 higher than the next closest (Rose; plus-20) — will become a significant springboard for his own game and for New York.
However, Holiday’s high degree of professionalism, along with his ability to be a catalyst for his teammates at each end of the floor, and lineup flexibility he affords Hornacek, could add up to a lot for the Knicks as their season wears on, and as New York keeps trying to find its identity as a team and work on some of the varying issues which has kept the Knicks under .500 through their first 10 games.
While all acknowledged the need for what Holiday was able to provide, Hornacek’s use of Holiday going forward will depend on the opponent how certain games are going at different moments.
“I don’t think so,” Hornacek replied when asked if New York might replace Noah with Holiday on a regular basis in the starting lineup.
Yet, he also added of the third-quarter lineup he switched to, “Maybe we can go to it a little bit more often.”
Even Noah, whose went scoreless in the game as his playing time was cut to less than 16 minutes against Dallas, was on board.
“Coach made the decision to play small,” he said. “I didn’t get to play. Everybody wants to play, but it’s good that we won. It was much needed… Coach made a decision and it worked tonight.”
Like Hornacek, Anthony took a wait-and-see approach on whether what worked against the Mavericks could yield the same success more often, in the long run.
“For tonight, the game called for that lineup to be out there,” he said. “It helped us out a lot. We’ll see what happens against Detroit (on Wednesday and moving forward, after that).”
Yet Anthony, who had been stuck on other Knicks teams, under previous coaches who were more stubborn at times when it came to staying with ineffective lineups for too long, appreciates Hornacek’s experimentation with the Knicks lineup, to get the team going when required.
“Jeff is trying,” Anthony acknowledged. “He’s trying to figure things out on the fly.”
So far, that’s meant a couple more home wins than New York might have otherwise had. And if Holiday can build off of his breakout game against Dallas, the Knicks might have the lineup tractability they need to start squeezing out some additional victories and competing on a much more regular basis than they had before.