Wagner: Once Again, Knicks Can’t Close Out

Whether it’s getting to perimeter shooters in time or finishing off tight games, the New York Knicks have had a big problem closing out.

The latter suffered because of the former on the Atlanta Hawks’ final possession at Madison Square Garden on Monday afternoon, as the defensively scrambling Knicks (18-24) left Dennis Schroder (28 points) alone for long enough on the left wing for the hot-shooting point guard to drain a game-winning 3-point shot with 22.4 seconds left in the Hawks’ 108-107 victory on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Dropping to 20-11 on the holiday, New York had one last chance to pull out a win, but after point guard Derrick Rose (18 points, nine assists, six turnovers) was blocked on a driving layup attempt, forward Carmelo Anthony (30 points, seven rebounds, five turnovers) got an offensive rebound and misfired on a shot from the right blocks, and center Joakim Noah (seven points, 17 rebounds) failed to convert on a tip at the front of the rim before time expired, the Knicks suffered their third one-point loss in their past eight games, to go along with two prior overtime defeats (the second of which was in Atlanta on Dec. 28).

“We got three good looks at it,” said a frustrated Noah, who took questions in the middle of the locker room rather an in front of his locker, as usual, before abruptly ending the question and answer session and leaving. “Derrick going down [the lane] and then Melo got a good one and I got a tip. It just didn’t go down.”

New York suffered its fifth loss in six games and 14th in 18 contests following a 14-10 start. Adding to their woes, the Knicks, after getting embarrassed in Toronto a day earlier, lost the second game of a back-to-back scenario for the eighth time in nine such tries this season.

As usual, New York’s persistent, season-long issues with not being able to stop opposing point guards or perimeter shooters, after switching more than is necessary on defense, came back to haunt the Knicks again.

Those problems occurred on Atlanta’s last trip, when Anthony switched off of reserve forward Kris Humphries (14 points, seven rebounds) at the foul line and onto starting forward Paul Millsap (17 points, seven rebounds, six assists) at the top of the 3-point line.

A pass then went to the right corner to forward Kent Bazemore (16 points, six rebounds, five assists), who drove along the right baseline before kicking a somewhat errant bounce pass up high, which Humphries tracked down before passing at the top of the arc to 2013 Knick first-round draft pick Tim Hardaway, Jr. (20 points).

However, rather than slide down the right blocks with Humphries, Anthony switched again, onto Hardaway, Jr., even though he was already guarded well by reserve guard Justin Holiday (11 points).

That decision caused Noah to slide onto Humphries, which in turn forced Rose to leave Schroder and drop down to cover Millsap on the left blocks, leaving Schroder open. Rose tried to recover, but it was too late, as Schroder — who shot a sensational 13-of-16, yet who only took one prior 3-point attempt in the game, and missed it — swished the decisive shot that gave Atlanta (24-17) its ninth win in 10 games, after the Hawks suffered through a 6-14 stretch following a 9-2 start.

Head coach Jeff Hornacek said of the Hawks, “They did a nice job of making extra passes and kicking it out. We didn’t do a good enough job of closing out on Schroder. He gets the credit for making [the shot].”

Hornacek also seemed slightly critical of Rose’s inability to contain Schroder on the play.

“[Rose] closed out but… it wasn’t a hard close,” Hornacek said. “He was almost there, but… a good challenge of a shot isn’t as good as not even letting [a player] shoot.”

Rose added of Schroder, “He hit a tough shot. “He was hitting tough shots the entire game… [today] was his [day].”

After being called for a very questionable charge with New York up 103-101, Rose gave the Knicks their last lead, 107-105, on a floater in the lane with 43.1 seconds left.

Before his failed attempt at the end — which was blocked by Millsap, despite seemingly absorbing a lot of contact from Millsap and forward Thabo Sefolosha — Rose had made five of six shots to turn around a rough 3-for-9 start and Anthony’s short miss came when he was 10-for-15.

Anthony, one of the more vocal leaders among NBA players with regard to social justice issues, said “It was a special day, a special moment,” to compete in the Knicks’ annual MLK Day matinee at MSG. “[For] everybody on both teams… it meant a lot to play on this day and participate and go out there and represent something that’s bigger than basketball.”

However, that wasn’t enough to distract Anthony and New York from their current slide that started a little over a month ago.

Putting his final shot in that context, Anthony said, “When things are not going your way, sometimes they go all the way left. That’s a shot that I think I could hit in my sleep.”

Perhaps what said most about where the Knicks currently are as a team — and their trouble getting on the same page with each other in more ways than one — were some of their varying comments about the way they played against the Hawks.

“We competed hard,” Rose said. “We communicated while we were out there.”

That analysis contrasted significantly with that of Noah, who said, “We keep making small mistakes. It’s just disappointing.

“We didn’t play great. We played okay in spurts, but we’re still not a 48-minute team. So we’ve got to get better defensively, our communication has got to get better on the defensive end. We’ve just got to get better and keep fighting.”

Meanwhile, forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas was somewhere in the middle.

“I think that everybody agrees that today we played a pretty good game at both ends,” he said. “We had some bad moments, but in general, everything wasn’t that bad.”

Some of the worst instances came in the third quarter, when New York allowed 35 points, as Atlanta turned a 54-53 halftime deficit into an 88-81 lead before Anthony, who beat the first half buzzer with a 3-pointer, did the same to end the third period on a jumper that started a 12-0 run which gave the Knicks a 93-88 edge early in the fourth.

“The third quarter, we just gave up too many uncontested shots and that’s what cost us tonight,” said guard Ron Baker.

With second-year starting forward Kristaps Porzingis nursing a sore Achilles tendon and cancelling out the absence of resting Hawks starting center Dwight Howard, Hornacek took the opportunity to shake up the Knicks’ lineup.

He did so by giving Kuzminskas and Baker — each undrafted rookies — their first NBA starts, and he was pleased with the results.

Kuzminskas scored 14 points and grabbed five rebounds while Baker added 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting from behind the arc.

“I think Kuz (Kuzminskas), from the start of the year, has gotten a better understanding of the NBA game,” Hornacek said. “He is getting a better feel for that, so consequently, his defense had picked up. His aggressiveness is much more than it was earlier in the season.

“Ron just competes. He’s in the right spot almost all the time… he’s a very solid player.

“Those guys are good players and we like to see them out there.”

Anthony agreed, saying, “They stepped up big time. Ron came in and gave big minutes at both ends of the court [and] Kuz played extremely well with his minutes. I thought both guys stepped up to the challenge today.”

Both Kuzminskas and Baker adjusted well to their new roles.

“It was different than coming off the bench,” the 27-year-old Lithuanian Kuzminskas said. “I’m really happy that I started the game, but I’m really sad that we lost the game.”

Baker, a former star at Wichita State, added, “Obviously, a lot of fun, a lot of big-time names in that [starting] lineup. Just a blessing for me to be a part of it. I wish I could have done more today to help us win.”

Saying he has “the same mindset” as a starter or a reserve, Baker added, “I try to bring that energy and spark defensively and make Melo’s and Derrick’s roles a little easier by spacing the court, and today I was able to hit some open shots because they found me and were able to draw attention to themselves.”

Courtney Lee (seven points in 21 minutes), the Knicks’ normal starting shooting guard who Baker replaced, was given and indefinite time frame and how long he might be coming off the bench, though Hornacek seems to like the idea of Lee playing with the second unit for foreseeable future.

“I like what Courtney did off the bench with that group of guys,” Hornacek said. “In the stretch we’re in, we’re looking at everything and all possibilities.”

Lee was supportive of Baker but didn’t seem happy with the demotion.

“I felt Ron played well,” Lee said. “He knocked down some 3s, got some stops, so he did what he was supposed to do. He was ready when his number was called. Whenever my number’s called, I’ll be ready too.”

Appreciative of Lee’s help, Baker added, “He was one of the first guys to come over to me and give me confidence and tell me to be aggressive, and play hard [today],” Baker added.

Speaking of Hornacek’s plans, Lee said, “He said it might just be for this game, it might be for a couple of games, you never know. He was just saying that we need to change something around.

“He said he wanted to get a look at me with the second unit, being more of a scoring option. So, coach’s call… I’m just here to play basketball.”

Asked about his time with the second unit, Lee (who only played five minutes after halftime) said, “I didn’t play the second half, so I don’t know.”

However Hornacek may juggle the lineup before and after Porzingis’ return, his team needs to quickly address a myriad of issues which is quickly causing New York’s season to spiral downward as the Knicks began the second half of their year against the Hawks.

“Some wins would change all that,” Rose said. “It takes staying together, it takes battling every [game] and us being tired of [losing].”

Kuzminskas notes, “We’re not blaming each other because we lose together, we win together.”
Anthony added, “Of course guys want to win, but at the end of the day, guys know that we’re all we have and we’ve gotta have each other’s back during this time.”

Another common theme in the Knick’s locker room after losing yet another close game at the end was the idea that New York is close to finding ways to win more often.

“A play here, a play there, a defensive stop here and there can change a lot,” Lee said.

Kuzminskas added, “It’s just one shot or one rebound or something… we’ve had a lot of games like this lately.”

Trying to put the Knicks’ latest close loss into perspective, the 23-year-old Baker said, “We feel like we can’t catch a break. We felt like the effort and attitude we brought today was good enough to get a win and we were just one possession short. That happens a lot in this league and [we’ve] got to move on and try and learn from our mistakes and [the] things we did well.”

Figuring out how to close out — both on perimeter shooters and at the ends of games — would be the best lessons.

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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