Knicks will need their secret defensive weapon against Brooklyn

New York Knicks, Frank Ntilikina

The New York Knicks are going into an all-out battle against Brooklyn Nets on Monday evening. With the best defense in the NBA, the Knicks have only allowed 103.9 points per game, alternatively, Brooklyn ranks second in the NBA in points per game with 118.7. However, they have the best field goal percentage out of any team at 49.4%, featuring three players in the top 25 regarding three-pointers made on average.

The Knicks don’t have a single player in the top 50 in three-pointers made per game, meaning they’re going to need to lock down the perimeter defensively and hope their long ball is effective against Brooklyn. Nonetheless, defense will be their primary focus, as usual.

The Knicks have struggled recently on offense, despite a demolition of the Detroit pistons where they scored 125. Previously to that contest, the Knicks had only reached 100 points once in their last three games, coming in a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, reaching 101.

Recently, a lack of offensive production has hurt the team, but their defense has been as effective as ever. Brooklyn will need to fight through a tough interior unit, but if their three-ball is on, the Knicks will have a lot of problems. That is why they might want to consider utilizing their secret defensive weapon, Frank Ntilikina.

Frank earned rave reviews from head coach Tom Thibodeau.

“Kevin and Frank have been phenomenal,’’ Thibodeau said. “I know when they’re called upon they’ll be ready. It’s important for them to get minutes. At some point, you need everyone.’’

While the Knicks haven’t utilized Ntilikina that often, he is still a valuable piece to the team that can fill a specific role. The Knicks will likely have their primary starters, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Frank locked in on Kyrie Irving at points in the contest. He doesn’t offer much offensively, but that’s one category he excels in.

So far this season, Frank is averaging just 3.9 points, 0.8 assists, and 0.8 steals all career lows. Currently, in his fourth year in the NBA, he was expected to take a more significant jump forward regarding his point production, but he continues to be more of a defensive role player. The Knicks will likely need him against Brooklyn, so he should be ready for action.

Knicks suffer another heartbreaker but Thibodeau finds silver linings

Julius Randle missed his last seven attempts. RJ Barrett muffed a crucial wide-open, 10-foot fadeaway. Immanuel Quickley bricked a potential game-tying three-pointer.

A banged up and short-handed New York Knicks team faded down the stretch as the Joel Embiid-less Philadelphia 76ers improved to 18-3 at home with a come-from-behind 99-96 win at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night.

Randle survived a nasty fall in the second half while Quickley went back to the locker room to retape a tweaked ankle. But they were running on fumes and didn’t have the usual fire late in the game to drag the Knicks to the finish line.

Long Island’s Tobias Harris scored six of his game-high 30 points inside the final 2:26 to lift the 76ers over the Knicks, who just came from an emotionally-charged loss in Brooklyn.

Playing on the last night of a back-to-back schedule against the East’s top two teams, the Knicks actually had the game in control for the most part until midway through the fourth quarter.

After Randle gave the Knicks a 10-point lead, 71-61, with 7:57 remaining in the third quarter, fatigue took its toll. Randle scored only on one free throw the rest of the way.

The Knicks All-Star finished with 19 points, 15 rebounds, and eight assists but didn’t have the legs to carry the team to the finish line.

Up by nine heading into the final quarter, the Knicks came up with only 14 points, four in the last 3:18 that did them in.

Still without their key players Mitchell Robinson (broken hand), Elfrid Payton (hamstring injury), and Derrick Rose (health and safety protocols), Tom Thibodeau was forced to play Randle and Barrett heavy minutes.

Randle played in the 40s in both losses against the Nets and the 76ers.

Barrett had 17 points on just 7-for-17 shooting in 41 minutes against Ben Simmons and the 76ers.

Quickley scored 13 points in his second straight start but only hit 1-for-5 from deep. His last miss came in the final 12.8 seconds, with the Knicks trailing by three.

Despite going 1-3 in the tough road trip, Tom Thibodeau was consoled by the fact that they dragged the top two teams in the East — Philadelphia, and Brooklyn — down to the last possession.

“We’re short-handed. That’s part of it,” Thibodeau said. “Whenever one guy goes out, it’s an opportunity for another guy to step in. Sometimes you find some things that can be very good for the team. I think taking a look at the Brooklyn game and this game, there were a lot of good things to take from it, and obviously, we fell short in the end. It shows us the work necessary for us to get over the hump. And we have to continue to work.”

Quickley stepped up and averaged 17 points and 2.5 assists as a starter. Frank Ntilikina, though, failed to capitalize on the opportunity as he went scoreless on both games. But to Ntilikina’s credit, he had his moments on the defensive end, particularly in the fourth quarter against the Nets.

Birthday boy Reggie Bullock, who turned 30 on Tuesday, had another strong outing with 12 points but had a crucial error when he stepped out of bounds on a three-point attempt.

Alec Burks and Taj Gibson combined for 29 points off the bench.

The Knicks head home and will host four games at the Madison Square Garden, beginning with the Orlando Magic on Thursday.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Deciding the fate of Knicks players on the bubble ahead of the trade deadline

New York Knicks, Austin Rivers

The All-Star weekend is officially in the books as teams are now fully focused on the second half of the NBA season. The New York Knicks are in a really good spot for a change, as they sit at the 5th seed in the East with a record of 19-18.

The fact that they are in the playoff race, let alone a game above .500 this late into the season, is nothing short of remarkable considering the expectations heading into this year. This is a huge testament to the work of head coach Tom Thibodeau and the rest of the coaching staff, as they have this Knicks team playing hard every night and outworking their opponents, especially on the defensive end as they currently rank second in defensive rating at 108.8.

Usually once the trade deadline rolls around Knicks fans are already scrolling through mock drafts and familiarizing themselves with prospects in the upcoming draft. The Knicks themselves are usually trying to sell guys for draft compensation or searching the bargain bin for anyone they can take a chance on.

This year is totally different, as the Knicks will probably look to be buyers over the next few weeks, and as usual, they have been connected to almost every name out there. This also means a number of guys on the team already have been connected to trade rumors as well, so we could possibly see a roster that looks significantly different once the March 25th deadline passes. With that, let’s dive into a few current Knicks who are on the bubble and see if they are likely to remain in orange and blue, or if their time as a Knick could be over rather quick (how did I do, Clyde?):

Four players the New York Knicks could decide on at the March 25 deadline: 

Austin Rivers

I really feel bad for Austin Rivers. I do. He went from being a guy who immediately cemented himself as a vocal leader on the team and had Knicks fans excited, to a guy who fell out of the rotation and hasn’t seen the court in weeks unless it’s garbage time.

That being said, Rivers has been playing very inconsistently for much of the season. He is a hot-and-cold type of player and is a very streaky shooter. It seemed that Rivers was trying to do too much when he was on the court, and he was failing to find the guys around him when they had open looks far too often.

After the Derrick Rose trade, it seemed like the writing was on the wall for Rivers. The second unit has largely performed much better with Rose, and even when Rose was out the last couple of games due to health and safety protocols Rivers still didn’t see any playing time.

Rivers can still be a valuable trade piece because of his experience, veteran presence, and team-friendly contract. There should definitely a few teams who are interested in bringing in a guy like Rivers to bolster their scoring off the bench, including the team coached by his father, who had also shown interest in him during the offseason along with the Knicks. The Knicks might be able to get themselves a second-round pick or two for Rivers if they move him, and it is all but guaranteed at this point that they will do so.

Prediction: Gone

Kevin Knox

Kevin Knox has suffered a similar fate to that of Rivers, as the 2018 ninth overall pick has also fallen out of the rotation and has only seen the court sparingly recently. In just over 15 minutes played he’s averaging only 5 points, 2 rebounds and under 1 assist per game.

Early on in the season Knox showed an improved shooting touch, particularly from behind the three-point line, although Coach Thibodeau must not have liked what he saw from him in other areas of his game and phased him out of the rotation pretty early on.

The Knicks have reportedly been shopping Knox, although they were unwilling to part ways with him in the Rose trade last month. Nevertheless, it’s likely that team president Leon Rose and the rest of the front office were looking to save Knox for a future trade down the line, and I doubt he is untouchable now by any means.

Knox still could provide some value to a team looking to take a chance on a young guy and see if they can try and unlock something that the Knicks were not able to. He could also be an attractive throw-in piece as part of a bigger trade, but no matter what the trade looks like the likelihood is that Knox’s time as a Knick is coming to an end.

Prediction: Gone

Frank Ntilikina

Ah, the beloved French Prince. A man who will forever unite and capture the hearts of Knicks fans across the globe. After his early-season injury and COVID scare, we thought Frank Ntilikina was pretty much done as a Knick as he was forced to the bench alongside Knox and Rivers once he returned. But alas, an opportunity presented itself once injuries struck, and Ntilikina was the one Thibodeau called on to step up to the plate, which shows that he trusts him.

Ntilikina has done a solid job this season overall, especially since he returned to the rotation the last few games before the All-Star break. He hasn’t lit up the scoreboard, but that’s never been his game. He’s shot the ball selectively but more efficiently this season, and he’s continued to affect the game greatly with his suffocating defense. The offense as a whole has also seemed to flow better when he’s on the court, as he’s been able to help move the ball around while doing a good job of getting his teammates involved.

Could this mean that maybe the Knicks won’t trade Frank after all? He is a free agent after this season, and it was thought that the Knicks were looking to move on from him. They could possibly look to trade him and then re-sign him in the offseason. However, the Knicks would lose his Bird Rights, and they might want to see if he continues to improve the rest of the season. He would probably be affordable to re-sign as well, which would be appealing.

This is really a toss-up, it can go either way, but I’m going to lean towards the Knicks holding onto him and the Frank Ntilikina experiment continuing… for now.

Prediction: Stay

Elfrid Payton

We now go from the most beloved Knick to the most criticized Knick. Elfrid Payton seems like a great guy and is a solid player, he just can’t catch a break with Knicks fans. He isn’t a starting point guard, and even though he hasn’t been terrible he hasn’t been great either. He’s been good getting to the basket and even in the mid-range with a strong floater game, but his inability to shoot the ball has limited what the Knicks have been able to do offensively. He’s held his own defensively as well, but he’s been underwhelming getting his teammates involved as he’s averaged a career-low 3.7 assists this season.

Fans have been calling for Derrick Rose to replace Payton as the starting point guard ever since he came on board, but Thibodeau keeps standing by Payton and it doesn’t seem like he’s planning on taking him out of the starting role. That being said, you never know with Thibodeau, and Rose has played well as the starter in the games Payton missed with a hamstring injury.

When you combine that with guards like Ntilikina and rookie phenom Immanuel Quickley coming off the bench, it makes Payton more expendable. Plus, there have been rumblings of Payton drawing some interest from other teams. But, at the end of the day, while it is possible that Payton could moved at the deadline, there has been nothing that gives off the impression that it’s likely to happen.

Prediction: Stay

Knicks fall to Spurs as Rose enters COVID-19 protocols

A last-minute shelving of Derrick Rose and a last-second three by Patty Mills in the first half doomed the New York Knicks in San Antonio.

The Knicks went back to .500 after a lethargic 119-93 loss at the hands of the Spurs Tuesday night in their penultimate game before the All-Star break.

Late scratch

Already without their starting point guard Elfrid Payton (sore hamstring), Mitchell Robinson (broken hand), and Taj Gibson (ankle injury), the Knicks were hit with another setback.

Rose entered the league’s health and safety protocols just an hour before tip-off that threw the Knicks off their rhythm.

With Rose and Payton out, fourth-stringer Frank Ntilikina, who has only played seven games before facing the Spurs, made his first start of the season.

Ntilikina did an admirable job finishing with 13 points in 25 minutes but failed to register a single assist.

Out of rhythm

The Knicks’ starting unit got buried at the start of the first and third quarters, which hastened their downfall.

Reggie Bullock only had three attempts after averaging eight in their last three wins with Rose at the helm. Nerlens Noel was brilliant on defense but could not handle the ball on offense.

Julius Randle and RJ Barrett had an additional burden of playmaking on top of shotmaking. It didn’t work as they failed to keep up with the Spurs’ more cohesive lineup.

Immanuel Quickley, Kevin Knox, and Obi Toppin knocked down a three-pointer each that brought the Knicks within two, 25-23, in the opening period.

‘You get what you deserve’

It was a tight game from there until the Spurs caught the Knicks’ defense napping right before the halftime buzzer. Mills drilled a well-executed corner three-pointer that gave San Antonio a four-point halftime lead and the momentum.

The Spurs got it going in the third quarter, with Mills hitting three of the Spurs’ seven triples that broke the game wide open. San Antonio outscored New York, 37-21, in that pivotal quarter. The Knicks never knew what hit them.

“Obviously, we didn’t play our best. When you’re on the road, you have to play well for 48 minutes. We didn’t do that. [We] didn’t close out the second quarter well. We didn’t start the third (quarter) well,” Tom Thibodeau said after the rout. “You get what you deserve.”

The Knicks deserved to lose the game as they let the Spurs shot 48.3 percent from the field and 18-of-32 from the outside. They were thoroughly outplayed, with the Spurs issuing 31 assists against the Knicks’ 18.

Reality check

Their top-two defense was nowhere to be found as they looked more tired than the Spurs, who were coming off an overtime loss to Brooklyn last Monday night.

The loss should serve as a reality check for the Knicks, who will face more tough teams like the Spurs after the All-Star break. They will play 26 of their 35 games against playoff-caliber teams in the second half of the season.

The Knicks didn’t specify if Rose tested positive for COVID-19 or he was only under contact tracing. But either way, the Knicks will have to play out their last game in the first half without him.

Ntilikina over Quickley

Ntilikina will likely remain as the starter in their rematch against the Detroit Pistons on Thursday.

“I was just trying to keep the second unit together as much as I could. And the size of their point guard also factored in as they have a very good offensive rebounding guard,” said Thibodeau explaining his decision to start Ntilikina.

The 6-foot-4 Dejounte Murray scattered 17 points, six rebounds, six assists, and three steals, while Kentucky product Trey Lyles, who started for LaMarcus Aldridge (stomach ailment), had a season-high 18 points with four triples for the Spurs.

Immanuel Quickley paced the Knicks with 26 points, his fifth 25-plus scoring in the season, which leads all rookies. He hit six three-pointers and added four rebounds and four assists off the bench.

Both Randle and Barrett sat out the entire fourth quarter. Randle wound up with 14 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists, while Barrett scored 15 on another efficient night, going 5-for-9 from the field.

The loss snapped the Knicks’ three-game winning streak and shoved them down to the sixth spot in the East, just half-game ahead of the Miami Heat.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Frank Four The Win: Knicks reach .500, tie Raptors at No. 4

New York Knicks, Frank Ntilikina

Julius Randle won the duel of NBA All-Star forwards, then Frank Ntilikina stole the thunder in the end.

The seldom-used French guard completed a steal with 4.7 seconds left, then buried two pressure-packed free throws that preserved Randle’s big game and lifted the New York Knicks to a 110-107 win over the Indiana Pacers Saturday night at the Madison Square Garden.

The come-from-behind win at the start of a back-to-back schedule pushed the Knicks to .500 and tied the Toronto Raptors (17-17) for the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference.

“We didn’t start the game well. It was funky. We have to work our way through. It was a long game. But the most important thing is we found a way to win in the end,” Tom Thibodeau said. “A lot of people stepped up and made big plays.”

One of them was Randle, who delivered big on both ends.

The first-time All-Star finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, and four steals. It was Randle’s ninth game with a 25-10-5 stats line this season, tied for the second-most in a season in Knicks history, according to Elias Sports BureauElias Sports Bureau. Bob McAdoo holds the record with 15 during the 1977-78 season.

But more than closing in on the franchise record, Randle helped the Knicks won the regular-season series against Indiana by locking up fellow All-Star Domantas Sabonis.

Sabonis was held down below his average (21.6 points and 11.5 rebounds) and could only cough up 15 and 7 against five turnovers in 37 minutes.

With Sabonis frustrated, former Knicks Justin Holiday and Doug McDermott carried the Pacers’ offense and combined for 33 points through the first three quarters. Then the Knicks defense held them scoreless the rest of the way.

But the Pacers stretched Thibodeau’s thinning rotation in this game.

Two nights after the Knicks scored a season-high 140 points, they found themselves staring at an 8-0 hole at the start. The Pacers extended it to 16.

To compound the Knicks woes, they lost Taj Gibson to an ankle injury, leaving them with only Nerlens Noel as their lone big man.

“Next man up. We’ve got more than enough with the players that we have,” Thibodeau said afterward.

“I know Leon (team president Leon Rose), and Wes (executive vice president William Wesley), and Scott (GM Scott Perry) will look into players that are available. That’s their area. I’m just focused on the guys we have. We’ll figure out a way,” added Thibodeau putting pressure on the front office to get him frontline help.

Thibodeau had to dig deep, employing Randle as a center with Kevin Knox at four. The small ball worked for a while as the Knicks ended the second quarter with an 11-3 run. They forced the Pacers to three turnovers in the last 2:26 of the opening half and pushed the ball to take a 54-52 lead at the break.

New York built a nine-point lead, 89-80, in the fourth quarter but Indiana, playing on the second night of a back-to-back, refused to quit. They came back behind unheralded guard Edmon Sumner and took a 98-93 lead. Barrett and Randle responded with a 9-0 run as the Knicks took the lead back, 102-98.

Noel played for extended minutes (41:15) and still delivered. He had eight points, seven rebounds, two blocks, a crucial steal, and two free throws with 1:15 left that gave New York a breathing room, 106-103.

Randle extended the Knicks lead to five, 108-103, on two free throws off Sabonis’ fourth foul. But Sabonis made up for it with a three-pointer at the top of the key to cut the lead down to two.

RJ Barrett, who also had a big night (24 points and 7 rebounds), missed two free throws that set up Ntilikina’s endgame heroics.

With Randle nursing five fouls, Thibodeau pulled the defensive ace up his sleeve.

The gambit paid off.

Rose had another strong game with 17 points, a season-high 11 assists, and four steals in his second start. His active hands led to Ntilikina’s pivotal play.

“It looked like Sabonis was being shaky with the ball. I saw the guard was at the top. He didn’t know what he wanted to do. I saw the ball was going back, and I just tried to go for it. It was just perfect timing, and Frank was able to get the ball,” Rose said of the game-sealing play.

Now the Knicks will travel to Detroit with a chance to move above .500 against the Pistons and the rejuvenated Dennis Smith Jr.

The former Knick, who was traded for Rose, is coming off his best game of the season (17 points and six assists) in a road loss to the Sacramento Kings.

Smith has scored in double figures in his last three games, averaging 14 points, 4.7 assists, and shooting 53 percent during that stretch.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

How the New York Knicks will likely use Frank Ntilikina moving forward

New York Knicks, Frank Ntilikina

The New York Knicks were utterly dominant in the win over to Sacramento on Thursday evening. Winning by nearly 20 points, it was practically a blowout, led by some of the Knicks’ young players. However, we can’t disregard the performances by Julius Randle, Derrick Rose, and Alec Burks, who hit five three-pointers and scored 19 points in the fourth quarter.

The veterans showed up to play, leading the charge and giving the neophytes an opportunity to thrive against one of the worst defenses in the NBA. The Kings couldn’t handle the Knicks on offense, and it led to a nice comeback performance from Frank Ntilikina, who has been out for the past few weeks. With Elfird Payton missing his first game of the season with a hamstring injury, it offered Ntilikina an opportunity to showcase his skills on the floor in front of head coach Tom Thibodeau.

Luckily for Frank, his primary strength was on display, and it is one that Thibodeau values extremely highly.

“His defense was fantastic,” Tom Thibodeau said.

Like many professional sports, matchups ultimately decide the tempo and flow of the game. Frank, utilizing his athleticism and pesky defense, was able to stick to De’Aaron Fox for a majority of the contest. While Fox did land 29 points, Ntilikina did a great job on the floor, recording three steals and two assists, finishing with a +17 +/-.

“It was matchups,’’ Thibodeau said. “I wanted to get a look at Frank. We have a lot of confidence in everyone on the roster. It was Frank’s opportunity, he went in and took advantage of it and played well. His defense was fantastic.’’

Returning from a long spell on the bench, as The Frenchman dealt with COVID-19, which followed a sprained knee that cost him three weeks, meant a lot to the young player.

“It was a long stretch,’’ Frank said. “There was so much happiness and motivation to do more.’’

There’s still value to be had for the Knicks with Frank:

Ntilikina is the longest tenure Knick, and at just 22 years old, Thibodeau got a taste of what he’s capable of doing. If he’s able to improve his offense, which we’ve been saying for quite some time, he could be an everyday player for New York, but he needs to prove consistency before anything.

“When you come back from a long stretch, with [Thibodeau] I’ll get more comfortable on the court,’’ Ntilikina said. “I was so happy to be on the court, to be able to compete with my teammates. I was really happy, so I had a lot of energy. I definitely felt good.’’

Once Payton returns to the lineup, I don’t expect to see Frank as much, but he’s a defensive weapon that Thibodeau will see as an asset as the season progresses. Expect the Knicks to utilize him in specific matchups with more athletic guards.

3 New York Knicks players that could be traded

New York Knicks, Austin Rivers

The New York Knicks are actively scouring the trade market for ways to improve their team, as they recently acquired Derrick Rose, sending point guard Dennis Smith Jr. to the Detroit Pistons. Smith Jr. was “all smiles” after being treated by the Knicks, and now they can finally move on from what was a massive mistake several years ago.

Rose has already shown his quality on the court, scoring 14 points over 20 minutes in his first game this season. The Knicks are currently 11-15, four games from .500. The most recent loss of the Miami Heat was disappointing, as they had a slight advantage going into the fourth quarter and blew a late lead, coming up short for a second consecutive night.

Once New York can close out tight games, it will make them a far more exciting team. One way they can improve their performance is to strike a trade for a premium asset. However, they would have to part ways with some of their current talent.

Three tradeable players for the New York Knicks:

1.) Elfrid Payton

One player that might draw some attention is Elfrid Payton, who is averaging 12.1 points per game and 3.7 assists. He was far more resourceful with the ball in his hands last year, averaging 7.2 assists per game, but his aggressive defense is why Tom Thibodeau continues to utilize him as a starter. There’s likely a team out there looking for a solid defender and reserve point guard to utilize in a rotational aspect. The Knicks are preparing to thrust Immanuel Quickley into the starting role at some point, which makes Payton expendable, especially since he’s on a one year contract.

2.) Frank Ntilikina

There’s always a need for a quality defender on the bench, but the Knicks have completely disregarded Frank Ntilikina over 26 games. He’s only made four appearances, and at 22 years old, a team out there will likely see the value in his fantastic defense.

There is still potential left offensively, but they have tried every which way to improve his scoring abilities. He has never averaged more than 6.3 points per game, and Thibodeau is looking for players who can put points on the board as well as dominate on defense.

I see the value that Ntilikina has, but at the end of the day, if Thibodeau isn’t going to utilize him, it is best to cash in on his value.

3.) Austin Rivers

The Knicks landed Austin Rivers on a three-year, $9.975 million contract this past off-season. While he started the year nursing an injury, he has provided a spark with his solid dribbling and off-ball movement.

He’s averaging just 8.1 points per game, which has value as a rotational player off the bench. At some point, he seems like he could be an adequate starter, but inconsistencies have dismantled his case. He is shooting a bit better from the field and three-point line, but nothing to be overzealous about.

Rivers is a player who could draw some attention on the market, and if the Knicks could package a few players together to land a more valuable asset, it might be worthwhile to explore a trade.

New York Knicks: Just how good is the Knicks’ defense 18 games?

New York Knicks

Tom Thibodeau, Mike Woodson, Kenny Payne, Johnny Bryant, along with the rest of the developmental staff are in the midst of a culture change with the young New York Knicks roster. The Knicks are currently number one in the entire NBA in least opposing points scored against and opposing three-point field goal percentage. The scary part about this early accomplishment is the fact that there’s still upside for the Knicks defensively.

The men sporting the orange and blue are succeeding in Coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive schemes. Thibs has been laying out floor plans for victories, and the Knicks have been executing to the best of their abilities. The young Knicks roster have bought in on the coach, and they’re still getting acclimated to each other. This is a young season full of promise, especially while watching inexperienced and talented players work and gain confidence in their crafts under a veteran, savvy coaching staff.

The return of Frank Ntilikina for the Knicks will be interesting because the French born combo guard is arguably the Knicks’ best perimeter defender. Ntilikina’s frame includes being 6’6” tall while possessing a 7’1” wingspan. He’s a menace defensively already at the age of 22 years old. Ntilikina can help take pressure off Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton in the backcourt.

Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley are two rookies who’ve shown flashes on both ends of the basketball court. Toppin has shown the ability to use his athleticism defensively. The Dayton “High” Flyer is understanding defensive positioning in the NBA. Quickley is using his length at the point guard position to his advantage. The former Kentucky Wildcat possesses solid defensive IQ. He’s also aggressive but still learning on the defensive end of the court.

Overall, the Knicks are in position to become better defensively under Tom Thibodeau. Healthy young roster depth allows the New York Knicks to play an ultra-aggressive defensive style. Knick fans might have to get used to the Knicks being a top-three defense in the NBA. It’s definitely a welcoming sight.

Randle too much to handle for Cavs as Knicks post 2nd straight win

Julius Randle reported to the New York Knicks’ training camp in great shape.

Now he‘s reaping the benefits in what is shaping up to be a career year.

The Knicks rode on their defense and Randle’s triple-double to deal the Cleveland Cavaliers their first loss of the season, 95-86, at the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on Tuesday night.

Triple-double special

With Kevin Love missing the game due to a right calf strain, Randle proved to be too much to handle for the Cavaliers.

Randle played 44 minutes and produced 28 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists for his seventh career triple-double and first as a Knick.

He started strong and finished stronger.

Randle set the tone on the offensive end with 14 points and five assists in the opening quarter as the Knicks raced to a 29-15 lead. Then the seven-year veteran put the exclamation point with a pullup jumper in the last 23.7 seconds.

Defending the 3

The Cavaliers averaged 122.3 points entering the game, but the Knicks’ stingy defense held them down to their lowest output in four starts. For the second straight game, the Knicks have limited their opponents to just seven triples.

Clearly, Tom Thibodeau is starting to affect a real change within the Knicks.

And it all starts with Randle being eager to become a better leader.

“They challenged me going into the offseason to come back a better player,’’ Randle said postgame.

Last season saw Randle thrown into a leadership role for the first time in his career. Randle didn’t handle it well. The lack of spacing and the dysfunction within the organization exacerbated the situation.

But Thibodeau’s arrival has ushered in a career revival for Randle.

“I’m going to put that pressure on myself as well to challenge myself and get better every year. Last year was a great learning experience for me. But this year, I’m coming back a better player and came back in great shape,” Randle continued. “And that’s just part of the culture we’re building. We’re competing and not backing down from anybody.’’

Culture of accountability

The culture of accountability that Thibodeau has brought with him is beginning to push the envelope. Suddenly, there is hope.

“I think the first part is [Randle] came into camp in great shape,’’ Thibodeau said. “I saw what type of shape he was in, so I knew he was highly motivated. So I think that’s a big advantage for him. I also think he has a pretty good understanding of his teammates and what their strengths are. And he’s playing unselfishly.’’

After his 11-assist effort, Randle has hiked his assist-average to a career-high 6.3, more than doubling his 3.1 average the past two seasons.

Sharing is caring

Reggie Bullock, often a recipient of a Randle kick-out pass, had 17 points on 5-of-9 three-point shooting.

The constant ball movement that Thibodeau has been preaching has given the Knicks open looks and rhythm shots. Through four games, they are leading the league in three-point accuracy at 45.9 percent, a stunning turnaround after being the fourth-worst last season.

Against the Cavaliers, they made 14 of 25 3s. Randle was 4-for-4 while Elfrid Payton knocked down two as he continued his stellar play.

Finding consistency

Payton followed up his epic performance against the Milwaukee Bucks with another brilliant all-around game. He tallied 14 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists as he begins to settle down with the starting role at the backcourt.

Meanwhile, Frank Ntilikina was productive off the bench as Payton’s chief backup. The Frenchman was all over the court, putting together five points, three boards, two dimes, and two steals in 16 minutes.

RJ Barrett had another rough shooting night (4-of-15) but still found a way to contribute 17 points, seven rebounds, two assists, and two steals. Mitchell Robinson also held his own against Andre Drummond, putting up nine points, 10 rebounds, and two blocked shots.

The Knicks were missing five players forcing Thibodeau to shorten his rotation to eight with his starters playing between 31 minutes (Robinson) and 44 minutes (Randle).

Rookies Immanuel Quickley (hip pointer), Obi Toppin (right calf strain), Omari Spellman (sore right knee), Austin Rivers (sore groin), and Dennis Smith Jr. (left quad contusion) remained on the sickbay.

Turnover woes

While the Knicks were red-hot, there were some anxious moments, too, as fatigue took its toll. The Knicks had to buck 25 turnovers to pull off the victory in the opener of their four-game road trip. Two eight-second shot clock violations by the Knicks enabled the Cavaliers to come within seven in the closing minutes.

Randle, who accounted for nine errors, atoned himself by producing the first 20-point triple-double in the Knicks history since Carmelo Anthony in 2012. That season also marked the last time the Knicks advanced to the playoffs.

What’s next?

The Knicks will continue their road trip in Tampa Bay, the temporary home of the Toronto Raptors. The Knicks will go for a third straight win against the still winless Raptors on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Undermanned Knicks hope to start win streak against unbeaten Cavs

New York Knicks

Two weeks ago, the New York Knicks looked like the much better team beating the Cleveland Cavaliers twice — an epic come-from-behind win and a 36-point ass whooping — with rookie Immanuel Quickley starring at the backcourt.

But so much has changed since the preseason.

The Knicks lost Quickley and a lot more to the injury bug, while the Cavaliers are enjoying their finest start at 3-0 since LeBron James left them for the second time.

Despite riding high on a morale-boosting 20-point rout of the Milwaukee Bucks, the Knicks will have to make do with a thin backcourt against the Cavaliers, which boasts of the dynamic pair of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland.

Sexton is averaging 27 points (tied for eighth in the league) and 3.7 assists, while Garland is norming 19 points and 8.3 dimes (seventh in the league).

Injury bug

The Knicks are still without Quickley (hip pointer), Obi Toppin (right calf strain), Omari Spellman (sore right knee), Austin Rivers (sore groin), and Dennis Smith Jr. (left quad contusion), who stayed behind in New York for rehab.

Kevin Knox is also dealing with a sore left knee, and his status for this game is probable, while Alec Burks is questionable after spraining his left ankle in their win against the Bucks.

On the other hand, the Cavaliers are also missing several key players, including Kevin Love (right calf strain) and rookie Isaac Okoro (left foot sprain). Kevin Porter Jr. is also out for personal reasons, while Matthew Dellavedova (concussion) and Dylan Windler (left-hand fracture) join Love and Okoro in the injury list.

Time to step up

Frenchman guard Frank Ntilikina, who drained all his four triples last Sunday night, will have the chance to prove himself after the Knicks declined to extend him.

Ntilikina is having a roller-coaster season after getting buried on the bench in favor of Quickley and Burks. But without Quickley and possibly Burks, Ntilikina is expected to play backup to Elfrid Payton.

Payton also hopes to pick up from where he left off. The 26-year old guard rebounded from a scoreless outing against the Philadelphia 76ers. He set the tone of the Bucks’ rout with a 27-point and 7-assist effort in what easily became his best game as a Knick.

Randle too much to handle

Without Kevin Love, Julius Randle will be too much to handle for the Cavaliers.

Randle is expected to impose his will against his former Lakers teammate Larry Nance Jr. who will replace Love in the starting unit.

Randle has benefited from Thibodeau’s ball movement philosophy. The 6-foot-8 power forward is off to the best start of his seven-year career.

He’s leading the Knicks in all three major categories — 23.7 points, 10 rebounds, and 6.3 assists — as he continues to thrive in a playmaking forward role.

RJ Barrett will also have a clearer path to attack the rim without Okoro, the Cavaliers’ best lockdown defender.

Barrett has also embraced being a playmaker, dishing out 4.3 assists per game on top of his 17.7-point and 7.3-rebound average.

Stats and matchups to watch

The Cavaliers average 122.3 points in their 3-0 start (118 vs. Philadelphia, 128 vs. Detroit, 121 vs. Charlotte) on the strength of their league-leading 31.3 assists per game.

Five Cavaliers are averaging in double figures, led by Sexton and double-double machine Andre Drummond (20.3 points, 11.0 rebounds). 

Payton and Ntilkina will have their hands full against Sexton and Garland. But so are Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel, who have to be smart with their fouls against Drummond.

Javale McGee is also proving to be a solid acquisition for the Cavaliers. The former Lakers’ center has been putting up 10.3 points and five rebounds in 16.7 minutes as Drummond’s backup.

Cleveland is currently no. 2 in the league in defensive rating at 100.3, next to Brooklyn’s 98.3.

With all the injuries they’re dealing with, the Knicks must click on all cylinders to have a chance. They are only averaging 108.7 points per game and can go into a scoring drought as they did in the Sixers loss where they only scored 89.

The Knicks’ 112.6 defensive rating ranks 21st in the league. If they can duplicate the defensive wall they put up against Giannis Antetokoumpo and the Bucks, the Knicks could give the Cavaliers their first loss of the season.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo