NY Sports Day
Jon Wagner

Wagner: Knicks Beat Up Nets Again for First Win Streak in Over Six Weeks, But Will It Lead to More?

The New York Knicks would be NBA title contenders if they could play the Brooklyn Nets every game. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly the way the schedule works.

Completing a four-game season series sweep of their cross-town rivals, the Knicks (23-28) did more of the same against the Nets (18-33) in an easy 111-95 victory at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.

After defeating Brooklyn by 21 points at home, and by seven and 15 points on the road, New York jumped out to leads of 30-22 after the opening quarter, 61-41 by halftime, and led by as many as 25 points early in the third quarter while cruising behind their starting frontcourt of center Enes Kanter (who with 20 points and 20 rebounds, recorded his second 20-20 game of the season while scoring 20 points for a third straight game for the first time this year) and forwards Kristaps Porzingis (game-high 28 points, mostly on 6-of-8 shooting from behind the arc) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (15 points). The Knicks also got 12 points and 13 rebounds in 22½ minutes off the bench from forward Michael Beasley.

In addtion, they made half of their 26 3-point shots while allowing the Nets to connect on only one-quarter of their 36 attempts from that distance.

All of that was more than enough to hold off Brooklyn, which despite matching New York with five scorers in double figures, had no player score more than the 13 points starting forward DeMarre Carroll recorded.

Coming on the heels of a 22-point win in Phoenix on Friday night, the victory gave the Knicks their first win streak in 22 games (and 45 days), since a season-best four-game win streak that pushed New York to a high water mark of 16-13, following a Dec. 16 triumph in Carmelo Anthony’s first game back to MSG after the Knicks’ former franchise player was traded to Oklahoma City last summer.

Some vastly improved defense has been the biggest catalyst in helping New York get another long-awaited win streak.

After a season-worst three-game stretch of allowing 127, 123 and a season-high 130 points in road games against the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State and Denver, respectively, the Knicks tied a season-low by allowing just 85 points in Phoenix before holding Brooklyn to just 41.9 percent shooting and only 28 points over the final 20½ minutes of the first half to build their big halftime lead.

However, before getting too excited about that, Knicks fans should consider the competition (against two of the league’s worst teams) over the past couple of games.

“It was better,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said, with some trepidation, of his team’s defense over that very small stretch. “The Phoenix game and then this game, to get back to the kind of better defense that we’ve showed [before]… we’ve got to keep building on that.”

While finally winning consecutive games again is certainly better than being on another losing streak, Hornacek has plenty of other reasons for keeping his optimism in check for now.

Aside from New York’s perfect 4-0 record against Brooklyn, the Knicks are otherwise just 10-11 against other teams under .500 this season.

As expected, the Knicks have been even worse against better competition, the likes of which they’ll have to face very quickly, with a trip to Eastern Conference-leading Boston (36-15) on Wednesday night followed by a visit to 27-22 Milwaukee two nights later.

New York is just 9-17 against teams that are currently above .500 or better, having lost its last seven games against such teams after a surprisingly decent 9-10 start against those clubs.

As Hornacek noted, putting together two consecutive wins over inferior opponents won’t mean much if that doesn’t carry over against the better teams on a more consistent basis.

“I don’t think so,” Hornacek said on whether the Knicks’ modest two-game winning streak is in itself meaningful.

He added, “The important thing is if you can string three, four, five in a row, then all of a sudden, you can make some moves, but winning one, then losing one, winning two, losing a couple, keeps you right in that middle ground. We have to have a stretch where somewhere, we can rattle off four or five in a row to get us back into things. It’s a start, but tomorrow (in Boston), if we can come out of that one with a win, that’ll probably be more important than tonight’s win.”

Rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina (eight points, five assists) agrees with his coach on that, but also said, “It should motivate us even more, going to Boston. If we want to go to the playoffs, we need to start winning some tough games.”

Knowing the reality that New York is on pace for about 37 wins and the NBA lottery for a fifth straight season has shifted the focus for many Knicks fans to player development rather than whether New York can suddenly do the rest of this season what it has failed to do on a regular basis — beat enough teams that are much better than Phoenix and Brooklyn in order to make a serious playoff run.

There was greater optimism on that front with Hornacek trying out a combination for more extended minutes of two regular point guards — Ntilikina alongside one-time lottery pick and recent G-League call-up, fifth-year guard Trey Burke (two points, four assists) — who are each capable of switching to the shooting guard position when playing off of each other.

“I thought Frank had some great stretches there when he was handling the ball,” Hornacek noted. “He was forceful with his moves, he got to where he wanted to go and then when the two of them were in there [together], Trey kind of handled it and did his thing, and Frank did a nice job playing off the ball.

“When we see that, it gives us an opportunity to use [Ntilikina] at the 2 spot. The big question is, is he going to be able to guard guys who are running off screens? The [Nets] are probably one of the best at running off picks… and I thought [Ntilikina] did a good job [against that]. So it gives us an option [with Ntilikina at the 2 and Buke at the 1].”

So far, the experiment is one that 6-foot-1, 25-year-old Burke and the 6-foot-5, 19-year-old Ntilikina both relish.

“Both of us can play off each other,” Burke said. “I don’t have to bring the ball up every single time. [Ntilikina] gives me rest and I can play the 2 [and Ntilikina the 1], and vice versa. I like it a lot, and on the defensive end, a lot of times we can switch. So it’s convenient and I’m looking forward to playing with him more.”

Ntilikina added, “It felt better [tonight]. It gives us more options because we’re two guards who can really handle the pick-and-roll and handle the ball, so it’s a good idea and I think we can be great in the backcourt together. Playing off the ball, for me, sometimes is good… I’m comfortable with it.”

Defensively, the French Ntilikina, who despite limited NBA experience at the 2 spot, had earlier chances to guard that position while playing in Europe, said, “I can guard the 1, the 2 and even the 3, and I’m willing to do it.”

With a return to playing against the types of teams the Knicks have struggled to beat often this year, it’s more likely that New York’s best moments won’t come from adding much to its win column this season, but from the type of development the Knicks are talking about with a Ntilikina-Burke combination or other areas which might offer hope for next season and beyond.

In the meantime, it’s nice to get a win streak for the first time in a long time. That is, at least until the reality of heading to Boston and Milwaukee sets in.

 


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