The success of New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau’s schemes is predicated on his players playing on a string.
Last season, the Knicks were tied together. They may not have as many scoring punches as they have assembled this summer, but they blended well together. They complemented each other. They were predictable. But they have consistency.
They are the exact opposite of who they were from the previous year this season.
The Knicks bogged down again down the stretch, coughing up only four points in the final seven minutes to let a crucial game against the Philadelphia 76ers slip away Sunday.
If there’s anything predictable about the Knicks this season, it is that they’re going to collapse at some point after a promising start or solid play midway.
“We have a group of guys — we all love each other, and I mean that, but getting down the stretch, that’s not good enough,” Evan Fournier told reporters after the Knicks broke down anew in the fourth quarter.
They were right at the doorstep of an upset. They were battling the offensively-loaded 76ers neck-and-neck until they fell apart.
Embiid strung up eight straight points, six from free throws, to start Philadelphia’s break away from a tight 106-105 lead with 7:01 left. With the Knicks forced to play small after their centers, Jericho Sims and Mitchell Robinson, fouled out less than 30 seconds apart, the 76ers took advantage.
The Knicks couldn’t secure the defensive rebound off a Tyrese Maxey miss. Tobias Harris, struggling with only five points, tapped out the offensive rebound and Philadelphia’s ball movement found him back for an open three-pointer from the corner.
The 76ers’ lead grew to eight. The Knicks shrunk under pressure.
“We are lacking confidence right now as a group,” Fournier said. “We’re not tied together enough. Down the stretch, we have no confidence. We’re second-guessing at times. It should be second nature. It should be boom, boom, boom! This is what we’re doing. But as long as we’re not doing that, it’s hard to close out games against teams that are good.”
In their last nine games, beginning at their embarrassing collapse against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Knicks have the league’s lowest offensive rating (82.7 points per 100 possessions) and effective field goal percentage (34.9 percent) in the fourth quarter, according to NBA advanced stats.
Fournier, who was hot with six triples and 24 points in the first three quarters, only had one attempt in the fourth quarter. Overall, they only shot 9 of 25 in the fourth quarter and got outscored by 14. The 76ers closed out the game with a 19-4 run in the final 7:01 of the game.
“We need to think a little bit more about what we want to achieve when we run something,” said Fournier underscoring their lack of purpose and their disorganized play down the stretch.
Thibodeau’s hands are tied.
Kemba Walker is no longer with the team. Derrick Rose needed another procedure on his ankle that set him back further in his recovery. Miles McBride is a rookie. Immanuel Quickley is having a crash course running the team. Alec Burks is a natural wing.
Unlike the 76ers, who have James Harden, who is making life easier for Embiid and the rest, the Knicks don’t have that luxury. It should not be even a luxury. It’s a basic necessity for a team that aspires to become better than mediocre.
“To start the game, you are trying to get into a rhythm. You move the ball. You go from one side to another because everybody has to touch it. Everyone has to feel good,” Fournier said. “But fourth quarter is different. That the time to really execute our stuff and go to our best players.”
Quickly, who played the whole fourth quarter, had the lion’s share of shots but he was only 3 for 8 from the field and had zero assist. Barrett went 4 for 6. Randle missed all his three attempts. Burks and Fournier missed their lone field goal attempt.
The Knicks have set their sights on returning to the playoffs this season. They did not turn a blind eye to their sputtering offense in their playoff loss to Atlanta Hawks. But what they did was worse than being blind. They have sight but no vision of who they wanted to be.
Unlike the 76ers, who had a vision of who they wanted to be.
“Unstoppable,” Embiid said of his partnership with the point guard 76ers president Daryl Morey targeted for months.
“What are you really going to do? He’s a great passer, and obviously, I’ve got someone [next to me] that attracts a lot of attention to him, so you’ve got to make a decision. Do you stay on me, or do you stay on him? And if you want to guard both of us with the other guys, now you’ve got Matisse [Thybulle] diving to the rim or wide-open shooters that have got one job to do, and that’s making shots. That’s all we got to keep doing,” Embiid added.
“Like I was saying in the locker room, I’m happy I don’t have to post up every single possession, so it’s great.”
Fournier could only wish the Knicks had that vision and knew how to execute. But he can only describe the Knicks’ play at the opposite end of where Embiid and the 76ers stand.
“It’s frustrating because we’re not far at all like we should be winning these games. It’s frustrating, very frustrating,” Fournier said.
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