Wagner: Tough Enough? OKC Bigs Expose Knicks’ Lack of Grit

Another game, another spectacular triple-double for Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook.

But even with Westbrook’s 27 points, and game-highs of 18 rebounds (five offensive) and 14 assists — making the dynamic star’s season averages reach a triple-double of 30.9 points, 10.3 rebounds and 11.3 assists per game — and despite star forward Carmelo Anthony struggling to a difficult 18 points on horrid 4-of-19 shooting, the New York Knicks (8-9) still had a great chance to pull out a win over Oklahoma City (11-8) before succumbing, 112-103, at Madison Square Garden on Monday night.

Westbrook’s heroics were expected and were somewhat quieted by a game-high 30 points, seven rebounds and four assists from his counterpart, Derrick Rose.

While Westbrook did what he often does to most of the NBA, it was Oklahoma City’s men in the middle — starting center Steven Adams (14 points and 10 rebounds, including three offensive boards) and his backup, Enes Kanter (27 points and 10 rebounds, including a game-best six offensive boards, plus three blocks, in 28 minutes) — who were the real difference in a way that might have the Knicks questioning whether they possess the requisite toughness for playoff basketball in the Eastern Conference, or if New York even has the grit and personnel up front needed to reach the postseason after going through a massive roster overhaul last summer.

Taking and making most of their shots around the basket, Adams (7-for-11) and Kanter (12-for-17) were extremely efficient, as Kanter more than doubled his prior season scoring average of 11.9 points per game.

Their contributions didn’t end there. The duo’s relentless efforts on the glass, in addition to Westbrook’s, led the Thunder to a considerable 53-40 rebounding advantage.

“He just outmuscled us… they outhustled us,” head coach Jeff Hornacek admitted, speaking of Kanter and his teammates. “We didn’t do a very good job of boxing guys out. We told [our players], ‘Kanter, Adams, those guys, you’re gonna have to hit ‘em and hit ‘em hard.’ They were just tougher than us.”

More than sheer physical size, the red flag for Hornacek was that despite the Knicks defending their home turf well this season (winning their prior six games at MSG), Oklahoma City’s heart was ultimately bigger than New York’s.

Although Hornacek conceded that the 7-foot, 255-pound Adams and Kanter, at 6-foot-11 and 245 pounds, were major challenges to push around, he noted an even greater disparity which can’t be measured by mere numbers.

“We’ve got strong guys, too,” he said. “There’s a difference between being big and strong, and having a little nastiness. I think Adams and Kanter had a little nastiness going. That’s where our bigs have to get where [they’re] not afraid to knock a guy down, especially if he keeps shoving you under the basket. You’ve got to do something at some point.”

For Hornacek, second-year forward Kristaps Porzingis (21 points) is a budding superstar with the type of agility and ever-growing skillset at 7-foot-3, which figure to make him the talk of the league in years to come. And 10th-year center Joakim Noah, at 6-foot-11, 230 pounds, maintains the same drive, inner spirit and determination that made him one of the best high-energy, go-all-out kind of players in the league for many years before his arrival in New York this season.

However, Porzingis, even as a sometimes bucket-stopping shot blocker, and currently up to 240 pounds (from his rookie weight of 220 pounds), remains (for now) mainly a finesse player as he continues to adjust to his still relatively new life in the NBA. Meanwhile, injuries and age in recent years have taken some steam out of the 31-year-old Noah’s game, to the point where he thus far as a Knick has shown his old type of energy and toughness on only a very inconsistent basis at best.

And although Anthony figures to keep the type rough shooting nights he had against the Thunder to a minimum, he’s never had a reputation of becoming any sort of lock-down defender or one who will mix it up in the paint to fight for the most difficult rebounds. And he likely won’t start to do those things on a regular basis anytime soon.

So while the Knicks can normally often rely on the scoring of Anthony, Porzingis, Rose, and others, along with the deft passing of Noah, they may continue to struggle on the glass and defensively against bigger, tougher teams like Oklahoma City.

(See Porzingis’ underwhelming five rebounds in over 39 minutes and Noah’s paltry three boards almost 26 minutes compared to what Adams, Kanter, and even what the far shorter Westbrook did in that category).

Even at that, New York, which trailed by as much as 10 points early in the final quarter, got within 101-99, with just under four minutes remaining.

But with the Thunder up, 106-101, a pair of tip-ins, a layup and a block — all from Kanter — between the 2:44 and 1:23 marks, sealed the Knicks’ fate.

It was those type of second-chance points — 28-18 in Oklahoma City’s favor — which proved to essentially be the margin of victory.

It didn’t work, but down the stretch, Hornacek turned to Noah in ways that he had often shied away from in the fourth quarter earlier this season.

“I didn’t feel like our bench bigs were doing a great job with boxing out, so we figured Jo has a little more size,” Hornacek explained. “But to their credit, they manhandled all of us.”

That thought might have been based on the first quarter, when Noah and Adams each played the first 7:32 as the Knicks jumped out to a game-high 25-14 lead, before Noah saw just 2:33 in the next quarter, when Kanter played for 9:03, and scored 13 points, to help rally the Thunder to a 58-55 halftime lead.

But with Noah seeing action for 8:12 of the final period, Kanter played 9:33 in the quarter, recording period-bests of eight points and five rebounds.

By then, Westbrook’s influence, with a season-high in rebounds, at just 6-foot-3, was overwhelmingly evident.

Head coach Billy Donovan (a New York City area native and former Knick player for a brief stint in the late 1980s, who coached Noah’s University of Florida teams to consecutive national titles in 2006 and 2007), said of Westbrook, “I thought his rebounding, a couple of loose ball plays, I think when he does that, it sends an unbelievable message to our team of just his spirit, his fight and the way he competes.”

Certainly, New York felt Westbrook’s impact with regard to the play of Adams and Kanter.

“Russ definitely puts a lot of pressure on the bigs,” Noah said. “But at the end of the day, it’s always tough knowing we lost the game on the glass.”

Porzingis added, “We should have done a better job first, stopping their point guard. He was getting to the rim, and that way, their bigs were there and were able to get rebounds and tip the ball in. It was a tough night for us on the boards.”

Although it looked as though Oklahoma City was hungrier, Anthony nor Porzingis (who had five blocks, along with four for Noah) were ready to admit that as the cause for the Knicks’ inability to keep the Thunder from getting so many difference-making rebounds and second chances.

“I don’t want to say that it was the effort wasn’t there,” Anthony said. “We just didn’t make it happen. Those guys (the Thunder), at the end of the game, got some big offensive rebounds.”

Porzingis added, “I think we played hard. We could have been, maybe more physical and get a foul or two and just shutting a guy off the boards. We could have done that, early on in the game, especially. But I think we fought hard, they just did a really good job on the boards.”

Taking some personal responsibility, Noah focused more on the idea that the Knicks were simply outworked. “They were able to get a lot of rebounds, a lot of offensive rebounds, and that was the difference in the game,” he said. “It’s disappointing. We’ve just got to keep grinding. It’s not fun to have that happen to you and then have to answer questions about guys outrebounding you, outcompeting you.

“We do [better with that] in spurts, but we’re definitely a work in progress. Personally, I have to play better for this team to get to where we want to get to.”

Noting his own failures and that of other Knick guards to help New York’s bigs on the glass, Rose said, “I think if we would have rebounded a little bit better, it would have given us a chance to win the game,” before adding bluntly, “The way we lost, there wasn’t any grit, there wasn’t any grind. We can’t come out and play like that, period.”

In essence, Rose was echoing Hornacek’s sentiments — that if the Knicks don’t get tougher soon, their season might.

About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons).Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship).He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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