Pressure mounts as shorthanded, out of sync Knicks face soaring Hawks

Alder Almo

The embattled New York Knicks will go into last season’s playoff rematch severely shorthanded against the soaring Atlanta Hawks.

The Knicks will be without Kemba Walker (rest) in the second night of the back-to-back schedule. Walker will join Derrick Rose (sprained right ankle) and Taj Gibson (sore groin) on the sidelines. Nerlens Noel, who limped Friday night in their 118-97 loss to the red-hot Phoenix Suns, could join them as he is listed as questionable to play with a sore right knee.

The Hawks are coming off a 132-100 rout of the Memphis Grizzlies also on Friday night. It was their seventh consecutive win after a 4-9 start.

“You don’t win seven games in a row without playing good basketball and being connected,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said after the game.

It’s a stark contrast to the Knicks’ current temperament.

When Evan Fournier and Walker joined in the offseason, there was an inflated expectation that the Knicks would be better than the team that Hawks tossed in the first round in just five games. But so far, the Knicks’ current 10-9 record suggests otherwise.

The starters had their moments in their last few games, but their inconsistencies have been perplexing even to Tom Thibodeau, whose hallmarks of defense and disciplined play can’t be found in this current team.

“Overall, we didn’t play well. So, it’s on all of us. It’s not on any one particular person so we have to do a lot better,” said Thibodeau of their lackluster performance against the Suns.

Thibodeau sounds like a broken record with this answer.

In the Knicks’ dispiriting loss to the Suns, it was clear that the gap between them and the elite teams in terms of talent and cohesiveness is so wide.

Clearly, there’s something wrong with the Knicks.

Julius Randle only shot eight attempts and finished with a season-low nine points. Randle, the hub of the Knicks’ offense last season, was not in his element despite having no lingering health issues.

“I feel great. My body, legs,” said Randle, who kept his answers to short, one-liners.

In contrast, the Suns’ star Devin Booker torched the Knicks with 32 points and cooked early with 21 first-half points. Randle’s trainer Tyler Relph shared an interesting observation on Booker’s fourth 30-plus point game at the Garden.

“27 shots — got involved early and often… [The Suns] got their best player in great rhythm,” he replied on Twitter.

The Knicks had lost their edge when they entered the season with high expectations. But is it fair to wonder if Thibodeau is also losing grip of this team?

Earlier in their struggles, Randle said the intentions and their hearts are in the right place. But their execution isn’t.

Does Thibodeau’s read and react offense need more structure to sync their staring unit and make everyone happy? Or do the Knicks need a shakeup?

In their second loss to the Eastern Conference’s worst team, Orlando Magic, last Nov. 17, Randle had an interesting postgame interview when he said it felt like a bit of weird out there on the court.

When asked why they had lost last year’s identity under Thibodeau, Randle said he was clueless.

“I don’t know, man. It’s just me being completely honest with you. I have no clue,” Randle said. “Thibs still comes in and does a great job giving us game plans and all that different type of stuff. I really think it’s just the details. Maybe it’s the little things that are hurting us right now.”

Since then, the Knicks remained inconsistent, alternating wins and losses in the next four games.

Fournier, who openly talked about his gripes of not playing in the fourth quarter and the lack of ball movement, was consciously and heavily involved in the offense early in the games to get him going but with mixed results. He had double-digit shot attempts in three of their last four games, averaging 12.3 shots in that span. When Fournier was hot, the Knicks rolled with two wins in their previous four games. But when he’s not, it ended up with losses. 

Against the Suns, Fournier was 4 of 15 after a torrid start. He did not see action in the fourth quarter for the ninth time under Thibodeau. It marked the most fourth-quarter benching in a single season in his career. 

Meanwhile, Walker will miss his second game this season due to rest. The New York native is averaging career-low numbers across the board except for shooting percentages.

Fournier and Walker were brought in to ease Randle’s burden. But it has become a bigger burden for Randle to co-exist with them.

When Randle was asked if there’s extra motivation in facing the Hawks, his answer was short but not sweet.

“No, it’s just another game,” Randle said, “another game on the schedule of 82 (games).”

But it’s not just another game. It’s a critical game for the Knicks as they enter the 20th game with chemistry issues still compounding their injury woes. It’s still early in the season, but as Randle said: “NBA games come fast.”

Thibodeau will be reminded of his remarks after their 12th game of the season.

“You know what they say — when it’s 10 games, you say we need 20. When you get to 20, you say 30. When we get to 30, you say 40, and then before you know it, the season’s over,” said Thibodeau referring to how much time do his starters need to gel. “So, that’s a bunch of bull—t.”

Win or lose, Thibodeau will have another interesting postgame presser for sure.

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