Evan Fournier was right.
It seemed the Knicks have that straightened out responding to Tom Thibodeau’s “a bunch of bulls–t” rant with a sizzling start in Charlotte. They built a 16-point lead, 34-18, around Kemba Walker’s familiarity with the Spectrum Center and Julius Randle’s brilliant playmaking.
The first basket of the game was a Fournier corner three off a Randle assist. Then came the second shot — a Walker pull-up three off a Mitchell Robinson screen. As Walker was feeling it, Randle fed him with a fancy between-the-legs pass. Then screened his defender for another Walker three-pointer.
With Walker smoking hot with 17 points to start the game in the building where his NBA legend began, Randle was content distributing the ball. Six of the Knicks’ 13 field goals in the opening quarter came off an assist, four from Randle. Some unassisted field goals came off screens like Robinson did, which did not reflect as assists on the box scores.
“They were making shots. [Kemba] was hot. He was aggressive early. You have to give them credit,” Hornets coach James Borrego said. “We couldn’t find that same rhythm on our side. I don’t think we were getting bad shots. I think we were a little antsy to start the game and they were making shots and we’re not. It kind of snowball there for a minute.”
When there was constant movement and action, the Knicks were hard to stop. And most importantly, they were engaged on defense, flying around to chase shots.
But it turned out it was just a mirage.
After the starters had six assists in the opening quarter, they could only add two the rest of the way. Randle was emblematic of their stalled offense as he only made one assist after the opening quarter.
When the starters checked back in by one by one in the second quarter, the 16-point lead started to evaporate. By halftime, it was down to just nine as momentum shifted to the Hornets.
When Walker began to cool down, Randle started to hunt for his shots. But the Knicks All-Star forward was struggling too with his jump shot missing another couple of attempts. He didn’t score his first field goal until the 2:51 mark of the second quarter — a putback after getting blocked. Then Walker fed him for a three-pointer that had Randle embarking on a personal mini-run with seven straight points. Randle gave the Knicks their last double-digit lead, 54-40.
When Randle dominated the ball, the Knicks’ offense stopped humming. The ball stopped moving. It sucked their energy on defense. What followed next was a couple of missed tough Randle jumpers. The Hornets started to buzz and cut the lead into a single digit.
The Knicks shot only 8 of 24 from the field in the second quarter. Four of those successful shots were assisted, with two coming from Walker, the only starter who recorded an assist in that quarter.
“What I say about this team though is they don’t hang their heads. We stayed resilient. We stayed together. It’s a long game. It’s a 48-minute game. We just stayed with it and it’s gonna turn. That’s what our guys did,” Borrego said of his Hornets.
Gordon Hayward repeatedly beat RJ Barrett off his constant cuts to the basket. By the time Thibodeau yanked his starters, the Hornets had transformed the nine-point deficit into a double-digit lead.
During that stretch, the Knicks starters combined to shoot 4 of 16 from the floor. Randle was 1 for 6, Barrett missed two, Fournier flubbed all of his three attempts. Robinson made one. Walker was 2 of 4. And only Randle made an assist, the lone recorded by the starters in nearly 10 minutes of play.
“We’re not just getting stops. They started making their shots. They started getting all the momentum, and it started going down from there for us,” Walker said.
After the Hornets only made 2 of 17 three-pointers in the first half, they went on to hit 8 of their next 19 attempts the rest of the way. The Knicks defense didn’t know where the attacks were coming from as the Hornets also dominated the paint, 20-8, in the pivotal third quarter.
“I wish I could tell you. That’s been our problem this season,” Walker said of their lackadaisical start in the third quarter. “We gotta find a way. We gotta find a way to be better.”
The bench came to bail them out and even grabbed the lead on an Obi Toppin fastbreak windmill dunk with 5:17 remaining.
It turned out to be their last hurrah.
Thibodeau tried to flip the script and brought his starters back, hoping they could bring it home, which they failed to do in their previous comeback attempt against the Milwaukee Bucks. But it didn’t work either. The Hornets pulled away with a 13-3 closing run.
“In this league, you got to play for 48 minutes. No lead is safe,” Thibodeau lamented. “If you don’t play with the right intensity, in the second half, we didn’t play well. So, we got to fix that.”
“The bench came in and played well but we need everyone playing well. It’s a team. You need your starters to play well. [You need] the bench to play well. You need them to play well together.”
But how can the Knicks, mainly the starters, fix that?
“It’s going to take energy. [It’s going] to take pride. It’s going to take five guys to do it, us five, we gotta figure it out. We just have to,” Walker paused to make a mocking grin behind his mask. “Or else it won’t be good for us. It needs to get better.”
“There’s just so much that goes into energy, man — just communication, body movement. There are things that contribute to that. As I said, it needs five guys at once, not just two or three.”
On Friday night, it was only Walker who had it going. He finished with a season-high 26 points but only had nine after his scorching start. LaMelo Ball, the new Hornets franchise player who replaced Walker, did not shoot well, but he was all over the floor. Ball continued the Knicks’ disturbing trend to give up career highs in their every loss. The 6-foot-7 Hornets point guard grabbed a career-high 17 rebounds, 12 points, nine assists, five steals, and one block.
Walker didn’t muster enough support from the rest of the starting lineup with the worst net rating (-14.4) among the most used five-man lineups (minimum of 150 minutes) in the NBA.
Randle tied his season-low with 10 points on 4 of 15 shooting. He had the second-worst plus-minus (-18) behind Walker’s -23.
Miles Bridges, whom the Knicks passed in the 2018 NBA Draft, badly outplayed Randle. Kevin Knox, who the Knicks drafted three picks earlier in the lottery, turned out to be just an end-of-the-bench player. Bridges’ three-point play off Randle’s foul with 1:31 left added salt to the Knicks’ wounds.
Barrett tied his career-low with only two points, missing eight of his nine attempts. Hayward dominated their matchup with 22 points and seven assists.
Robinson shot 4 of 5 from the field. He had 11 points and six rebounds in 23 minutes, but his limited offensive skill set and the rest of the starters dragged his net rating (-9). His counterpart on the Hornets’ side, Miles Plumlee, offset Robinson’s contribution with six points and 11 rebounds.
After starting the game with a three-pointer, Fournier could only add two more points. The French wing, who demanded more ball movement, only had six attempts and missed four. Terry Rozier roasted the Knicks with 18 points on 7 of 13 shooting.
“Every night, it’s gonna be a different guy until we have enough guys who can really score the basketball,” Walker said. “We need to get some more movement together. I just think it’s still pretty new for us, especially me and Ev (Evan). You know, with two new guys coming in, trying to find our way, trying to find our spots, to find our shots, we just have to figure out how to be consistent.”
Until then, the only thing consistent right now is their stagnant offense and lousy defense.
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