NEW YORK — His team did so many things well against the Atlanta Hawks at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, it was hard for New York Knicks interim head coach Mike Miller to decide which he liked best.
“It’s difficult because there are a lot of positives,” Miller said following the Knicks’ 143-120 dismantling of the Hawks (6-22) as New York (7-21) easily won a meeting with Atlanta to climb out of the Eastern Conference cellar.
“I’m really, really happy for our team and the way they played, and the way they’re coming together each day,” Miller added. “They’re doing a great job.”
So is Miller, the 55-year-old who was a college assistant or head coach at six different colleges and with two NBA G League teams over three decades before finally getting his NBA head coaching break, taking over for fired head coach David Fizdale less than two weeks ago.
Miller, the G League Coach of the Year with the Westchester Knicks in 2018, has infused key principles of playing better defense and playing offense with a faster pace and better ball movement to achieve pretty much the opposite as the Hawks.
Atlanta started the season 2-0 and 3-3, but has gone just 3-19 since. New York, which went a miserable 4-18 under Fizdale, is 3-3 with Miller in charge of the Knicks’ bench and has won three of its past four games.
“You’ve got to give Mike credit,” said small forward Marcus Morris, who after joining his fifth NBA team over the summer, is leading the Knicks with a career-best 18.8 points per game in his ninth NBA season.
Morris continued, “It’s unfortunate that Fiz got released, but Mike has [taken] a team that was kind of wounded [and] been able to kind of pull it together and get us going in the right direction… he’s a good coach… these last five-to-[six] games, we’ve really been looking like we’re coming together and getting better.”
The Knicks, who still rank last in scoring (102.7 points per game), even after their offensive explosion against the Hawks, showed at least for one night — against one of the most porous defenses in the league (one that was torched for 150 points by the Los Angeles Clippers and 158 points by the Houston Rockets in earlier road losses this season) — that they can score well when playing the right way.
While some NBA teams often have a letdown in their first home game after a long road trip, New York — which was coming off of a 2-2 Western trip during which the Knicks were very competitive and won twice in their last three games — jumped on Atlanta early with a 41-point first quarter (the most the Knicks have scored in any period this season) and never looked back.
That was merely a single statistic out of a myriad of impressive ones for New York in the game.
Leading by one late in the opening quarter, the Knicks scored the final 13 points of the period and the first eight of the next to break the game open with a season-best spurt of 21 straight points, to lead, 49-27.
From there, New York posted its highest-scoring half of the season to lead, 77-53, at intermission.
Though Hawks star point guard Trae Young finished with a game-high 42 points on efficient 16-for-29 shooting, including 7-for-13 from 3-point range, Young’s outburst was harmless once the Knicks pulled away early.
“It started at the defensive end,” Morris said of the decisive first-half run. “We got a lot of stops. We started corralling Trae and got out to the races and got some open 3s and layups. And, Mike likes to keep the floor open for us on offense… his offense is buying into what guys’ strengths are and it’s showing.
“Once we got stops, we got out in transition, the ball was popping, guys would get open looks and we were getting downhill… it was very consistent on both ends and it was fun. It was good to see.”
Entering the final quarter, the Knicks (who were up by as much as 31 early in the third period) led 109-84, after scoring their most points through three quarters in 11 years. They reached 140 points for the first time in 31 years (a year before Miller started as an assistant with Western Illinois in 1989), when they beat Indiana at home, 141-113, on Dec. 20, 1988. Going back further, New York scored its most points since a 149-118 home victory over Detroit on Nov. 11, 1980.
While making almost half of their 3-pointers (shooting 13-for-28) and shooting 55.8 percent (53-for-95) overall, the Knicks posted a season-high 30 assists on 53 made field goals.
New York was led by 19-year-old rookie shooting guard R.J. Barrett, who scored a career-high 27 points. Morris added 22 points, as did second-year, 21-year-old center Mitchell Robinson who thanks to a flurry of late, trademark lob dunks, ended with a career-best 22 points (as well as a game-high 13 rebounds) while recording the first 20-10 game of his career.
Power forward Julius Randle and second-year, 20-year-old reserve forward Kevin Knox each scored 17 points to give the Knicks five different players with at least that many points in a game for the first time since Nov. 16, 2010.
Additionally, all 11 Knicks who played, scored. All but one of those had a rebound and all but one of them had an assist. All but three Knicks went to the free throw line. All but one Knick shot at least 46.7 percent from the field and all but two Knicks made at least half of their shots.
Reserve big man Bobby Portis (whose 11 points gave New York a sixth scorer in double figures) said, “I think this last week, we found our identity. Everybody’s being active, everybody’s making the right basketball play. If you play the game the right way, the game comes back to you good.”
Continuing, Portis echoed Morris’ earlier sentiments and credited Miller for the Knicks’ recent — though still at this point, still short-lived — turnaround.
“He’s a great guy, a stand-up guy,” Portis said of Miller. “He has ultimate confidence in everybody he puts out there. It’s good to have a coach like that who trusts his guys. We’re not only playing for ourselves, we’re playing for him [and] our families.”
Miller reciprocated the praise heaped on him, noting several different things he was happy to see from his players against the Hawks and at prior times.
Speaking of his trio of point guards, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. (eight points and five assists in almost 13 minutes) and Elfrid Payton (game-high nine assists and no turnovers in 20 bench minutes), Miller said, “We used all of our point guards… I was very pleased with how they all played.”
Specifically of Payton, Miller added, “I think he’s really helping people around him.”
On Smith Jr., Miller said, “Dennis was terrific. The speed that he came in and brought… the plays that he was able to make and the pressure that he put on the defense was a great lift for us.”
Not limiting his acclaim to only his guards, Miller noted the contributions of Robinson and Knox, as well.
“He’s playing with unbelievable energy and force,” Miller said of Robinson. “He’s making so many plays and creating so many things out there, he doesn’t get credit for all of the things that are not [counted] as assists, but without his activity, a lot of these plays, we wouldn’t be able to make.”
Miller added of Knox (who had only two points in six first-half minutes), “I think a big sign for Kevin tonight is maybe that he didn’t have a good first half, but he showed maturity because he came back and had a great second half. That’s growth.”
The thing that pleased Miller the most was seeing his team learning how to play with a big lead one game after erasing a 20-point first-half deficit and taking a five-point fourth-quarter lead (before losing) in Denver.
“There’s a tendency when you get a lead sometimes, you go away from what you were trying to do and I thought we stayed with it all the way through,” Miller said. “If there’s one thing to look at, I would compliment our guys on not playing to game situations, but playing the way that they need to play [regardless of the score] and to continue working to be a consistent team.”
Addressing the differences under Fizdale relative to playing for Miller, Barrett said, “At the beginning of the season, I kept saying that we need to play all 48 [minutes]. We did that tonight.
“The whole team, as a unit, we’ve just been putting an emphasis on moving the ball… and getting everyone involved, playing defense and getting stops, trying to limit [opponents] to one shot as much as possible.”
Part of that is maintaining the right mindset.
“I think we have to bring the urgency every night,” Miller said. “When we have to establish, ‘This is how we play, this is our identity,’ then we can look at other things. I think right now, we just have to bring that every night, bring that enthusiasm. Guys are having fun playing and that makes things flow together a lot easier.”
Sometimes, that means Miller — who hasn’t been shy about using timeouts early and often if he sees something he doesn’t like, regardless of the game situation — keeping his team in check during the game.
After losing an early 9-5 lead, Miller wasted no time in using his first timeout after the Hawks tied the game, 11-11, less than five minutes into the contest.
“We were off on coverages, maybe, and we weren’t together, and I just wanted to make sure we were connected, “Miller recalled.
Barrett said, “At that point, they had scored a couple of easy baskets, and he didn’t like that, so he just told us to try to stop the easy [baskets] as much as possible.”
Practicing what he preaches about keeping a certain level of focus irrespective of the score, Miller called another timeout, up 91-63, in the third quarter after a defensive breakdown allowed an easy Atlanta basket.
Offensively, Miller said, “We think we have guys that can score, so obviously, we would like to play with a good pace… with a downhill force, with our drives, with our rolls, with our cuts and all of those kinds of things — when we’re shooting the ball well on the perimeter and when we’re playing with that kind of force. Part of that identity, the defense has to set the table. We’re not going to score 140 every night, obviously.”
Though Barret led the way this time, he said, “It wasn’t just me, it was everybody [being] in the flow the whole game, and that’s how you want to play. We want everybody to succeed.”
According to some Knicks players, doing that takes more than just improving on the court through coaching from Miller and his staff.
A recent team meeting, as well as some off-court bonding, has helped as well.
Portis said, “Just talking, communicating… talking more off the court, talking on the plane, laughing, joking, all that builds camaraderie. Basketball’s a team sport. You need to get to know your teammates with more than just basketball. That builds trust.”
The familiarity of Miller being promoted rather than bringing in a new coach was also a plus for New York.
“Mike has been around with us for a bit now,” Robinson said. “It’s not like we’re jumping into a new cycle. He was with us when Fiz was here… it feels normal.”
Yet, just before Miller replaced Fizdale, a player meeting was needed which has since paid some dividends.
“I truly believe so,” Morris said, about whether the meeting got through to the Knicks’ younger players. “Guys are using the word ‘accountability’ all the time. That’s something that a lot of young guys don’t buy into, but our young guys are coming into their own and trying very hard. I think it’s showing out there on the court.
“I think we’re just getting started. Our young guys are playing [hard] and I think the game’s starting to slow down for them. That word ‘accountability’ is starting to really click for them.”
Robinson added, “We had a team meeting and we were pretty much tired of how the season was going. We decided we needed to make some changes.”
So did the Knicks’ front office, with the team’s head coach. So far, that’s paid off well.