Myles Turner, Pacers show Knicks what they are missing

After the New York Knicks lost to the Toronto Raptors, coach Tom Thibodeau talked about losing to a team playing with an edge.

Earlier, they responded to an unexpected loss to a rebuilding Orlando Magic team by playing with an edge against a hobbling Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers. He was expecting the same when they traveled to Indiana. But to his surprise, it was Myles Turner and the Indiana Pacers who showed up with an edge on Wednesday night at Gainbridge Field House.

Turner repeatedly hurt the Knicks inside and out as the Pacers buried them early in a 111-98 road loss for their first losing streak of the young season. It was another painful reminder of what the Knicks are missing.

The 5-1 start somehow swept the Knicks’ inconsistency and defensive deficiency under the rug. In Tom Thibodeau’s oft-repeated refrain, “When you feel good about yourself and let your guard down that’s when you get knocked down.”

The trade off between a supercharged offense and last season’s stout defense is rearing its ugly head.

The Knicks team that the fans fell in love with last season played with an edge and climbed their way up to the standings with a blue-collar defense anchored by a strong rim protection, perimeter closeouts and selectively allowing outside shots from weak outside shooters.

Turner fits the profile of a weak outside shooter. In three games against the Knicks last season, Turner managed to only hit 4 of 20 three-pointers. Entering Wednesday’s matchup, Turner was just 32-percent outside shooter, hitting 11 of 34 threes in the Pacers’ first eight games.

But against the Knicks, Turner turned the corner.

In what became a familiar sight to Julius Randle, Turner’s confidence notched a level higher every time the Pacers big man hit a three-pointer.

“We missed some shots. Myles got hot early. You know with him [when] he gets [his] confidence early, he’s good and he’s gonna be able to hit shots for the rest of the game,” Randle said.

Randle knows it too well having worked with Turner under the same trainer in their home state in Texas last summer.

Tyler Relph, Randle’s long-time trainer who was responsible in helping him grew into a 41-percent three-point shooter last season, is also doing the same to Turner to expand his game and become a modern big man. It’s a development that could push the Knicks to try harder in teaming him up with Randle.

Turner’s summer work with Relph was on full display against the Knicks. Turner connected on 7 of 10 threes that opened up the driving lanes for the Pacers guards and wings. He drained two triples and made a putback in the Pacers’ 11-0 start that floored the Knicks.

Indiana shot 16 of 41 from the outside and 26 of 50 inside the arc.

Turner’s backup Goga Bitadze added two threes as they dragged Mitchell Robinson and the returning Nerlens Noel out of the paint on defense. The Knicks’ woes were exacerbated by Indiana’s 18 transition points.

The Knicks know where teams are hurting them. Their transition defense is all about effort. They talked about it openly during Tuesday’s film session.

But it’s easier said than done.

The Knicks never had a chance against the Pacers whose starting unit is long, big, mobile and versatile. They came as close as three points twice later in the game but Turner and the Pacers always punched back harder. New York was a step slower on defense. And their newfound weapon — the three-point shot — betrayed them on this night. They woefully shot a conference-low 5 for 24 from deep.

If not for RJ Barrett’s 12-point third quarter explosion in another strong offensive showing, it could have been worse for the Knicks. Though Barrett had his worst performance over his last four games. He needed 20 shots to get to 23 points.

Randle finished with a monster double-double of 18 points and 14 rebounds but was only 6 for 16 from the floor. Evan Fournier only hit 1 of 5 threes and Kemba Walker had his worst shooting night, going 0 for 5 from deep and 2-for-11 overall for four points.

“My thing is I don’t like to pin the blame on any one player,” Thibodeau responded when asked about Walker’s discouraring stats line. “As a group, we didn’t play well. We’re all part of it— coaches, players. And [struggle] is a part of the season. How do we navigate it?”

Six Indiana players finished in double figures led by Turner’s 25 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. Malcolm Brogdon was solid in his return from sickbay as he thoroughly outplayed Walker. Brogdon produced 17 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.

“The East is loaded. So every night you got to bring it. And an important part of winning is playing with an edge,” Thibodeau said.

The Knicks simply did not have it in the past two games. They lost to two teams who were beset with COVID-19-related issues and injuries last year. Even in their wins save for their off-the-charts shooting in Orlando, there were signs of cracks in their defense as they could not hold on to  double-digit leads.

With the Raptors now back in Toronto after an uninspiring wandering in Tampa Bay, they are off to an impressive start. Their current five-game winning streak is something special as they played with their star Pascal Siakam on the sideline and rookie stud Scottie Barnes joining him in the last two games. The Pacers are starting to round off the edges as they get healthier under a chammpionship-level coach Rick Carlisle.

These two teams are part of the second tier where the Knicks would be competing for a spot in the playoffs and avoid the play-in tournament. Miami Heat’s 6-1 start may have catapulted them to the first tier along with the Sixers, Brooklyn Nets and defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, who are on deck for the Knicks on Friday night.

The Knicks may have reloaded with better talent but it will not matter if they don’t get their acts together on the other side of the ball. Shooting will come and go. But as the cliche goes, hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. The Knicks need to return to outworking and outhustling everybody.

“We got to pick ourselves up and have a determination about it. I always say, you have to be mentally tough when you’re facing adversity, and that’s where we are right now,” Thibodeau said.

They are in the same exact spot (5-3) through the first eights games as last season. What followed next was a five-game losing streak.

We’ll see what this new iteration of Knicks are made of after next week.

It only gets tougher from here as their next five games include the Bucks on Friday, the rejuvenated Cleveland Cavaliers and the Sixers on a back-to-back home-and-away schedule on Sunday and Monday. A rematch with the Bucks and a faceoff against the high-flying Charlotte Hornets complete a trechearous next week for the Knicks.

It’s still early in the season. But adversities like this is something Thibodeau would want to have now rather than later when the stakes are higher.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Reunion with Frank Vogel? Lakers interested in Monta Ellis

After working out with the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks, Monta Ellis has received another interest from a contender in the Western Conference.

Los Angeles Lakers have reached out to Ellis‘ business manager Derrius Nelson of Dagger Basketball Agency, who quickly arranged a conference call with his client Monday.

“I told them that Tae is not big on being a star anymore. He’s been there already,” Nelson told Empire Sports Media. “His [possible] addition can make them one of the best LA Lakers teams to go down in history. With Tae being there, it would be crazy!”

“Derrius, that’s why I’m calling because I know what type of player Monta is. I was a huge fan of him; his [past] works and the time he put in the NBA override a lot of guys that’s been coming to work out because he is reliable,” the Lakers representative was quoted as saying to Nelson. 

Ellis has previously played under Lakers coach Frank Vogel in Indiana. In his lone season under Vogel, Ellis averaged 13.8 points and 4.7 assists.

Vogel appreciated Ellis’ transformation from a big-time scorer into more of a playmaker, embracing the Pacers’ ball movement during their time together.

“He came in here with the reputation of being a big-time scorer, and we’ve been overwhelmed with his ability to pass the basketball [and] to create. That’s what’s been most impressive to me, so I think we’re using him more in that regard rather than just asking him to go score,” Vogel said in 2016.

He settled in nicely with his then newfound role as the veteran leader of a young Pacers team that featured a 25-year old Paul George entering his prime. Ellis was instrumental in helping the Pacers pushed the more experienced Toronto Raptors to seven games in the first round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs. He averaged 11.6 points and 4.3 assists in that series.

“I think it’s who he is,” said Vogel. “First of all, he’s got great will and determination to win. I think he recognizes that we’ve still got a fairly young team — a team where a lot of guys are either young or in new roles. He’s helped a lot of these guys with his experience — sharing his experiences.”

“Monta is at a point in his career where scoring 25 points or 20 points isn’t the most important thing to him. What’s most important to him is winning every night. That’s a blessing and welcome thing for a head coach — to have a guy who is just going to go out and do whatever it takes to win a game. If he scores four points and we win, he’s happy. If we need [him] to go out and get 20, 25 points to help us win, that’s what he’s going to try and go out to do. I love that he’s all about winning right now,” Vogel added.

But after Vogel’s contract was not renewed at the end of the season, Ellis quickly fell out of favor as the Pacers decided to go in a different direction. Nate McMillan was hired to lead the rebuilding process. A season later, the Pacers traded away Paul George and stretched Ellis’ remaining years of his contract.

Now 35, Ellis said in a previous exclusive interview with Empire Sports Media that he still has it. He trained under top NBA trainer Joe Abunassar to prepare for this comeback attempt, and so far, it yielded two workouts and possibly three more with the Lakers one of them.

Five years since their first team-up, Ellis and Vogel’s paths could meet again, with the Lakers stacking up veterans for another possible title run. Currently, the Lakers have 13 players on guaranteed contracts. They also have two players in undrafted rookies Mac McClung and Chaundee Brown on Exhibit 10 deals and a pair of two-way players in rookies Joel Ayayi and Austin Reeves. 

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

For The Love Of Basketball: Former star Monta Ellis pursues NBA comeback

It’s been four years since Monta Ellis stepped on an NBA court.

The Indiana Pacers still owe him $2.25 million this coming season, the last of the stretch provision they applied when they waived him and his $11.2 million salary in 2017.

“I believe I still have a lot in my tank. I can still play five years,” Ellis told Empire Sports Media on a zoom call.

Ellis was under the heat in a soccer field somewhere in Dallas, Texas, the entire zoom call. He was at the sidelines cheering for his kid in a soccer game last weekend.

Not long ago, his weekend schedule is focused on him — either practicing with his team or playing in an NBA city.

These days, it’s no longer about himself. Away from the spotlight and the dizzying NBA lifestyle, Ellis has grown as a man, a husband, a father, and a coach. But deep inside, he still yearns to be in the middle of the action watching how the NBA spacing could cater to his uptempo game.

At his prime, Ellis was a wrecking ball who blitzed his opponents with blazing speed and athleticism. A former McDonald’s All-American, he entered the NBA straight from high school as the 40th pick in 2005. He spent his first six and a half years with the Golden State Warriors improving each year. Soon after, the 2007 Most Improved Player became their franchise player. He was until he got traded to the Milwaukee Bucks at the trade deadline in the 2012-13 season to make way for rising shooting star Stephen Curry.

That broke his heart, and he lost himself in the process.

Ellis still led the Bucks to a playoff appearance — his first since 2007 — but got swept in the first round. He went to Dallas, where he found a home and became the first player other than Dirk Nowitzki to lead the team in scoring during his time there. He was instrumental in the Mavericks’ two playoff runs, averaging 26.0 points in a first-round loss to James Harden and the Houston Rockets in 2015. But ultimately, Ellis left the Mavericks for financial security after not picking up his $8.7 million player option.

Larry Bird and Frank Vogel convinced Ellis to sign a four-year, $44 million contract despite Sacramento Kings offering four million more. The Pacers sold him the vision of becoming Paul George’s running mate.

“For him to get one last really big deal, to me, was a no-brainer,” Dirk Nowitzki said when he left. “I would’ve liked to kept him [in Dallas], but you know how it is in this league. Once people hit free agency, it’s tough to call.”

It proved to be Ellis’ undoing as his career started to go downhill. And when the Pacers traded away George and started a rebuild, the writings were on the wall.

Ellis tried to work out a buyout with Pacers. But when they couldn’t agree, the Pacers waived him.

“The 2017 Monta Ellis had a lot of things going on mentally that started to affect me physically. That’s one of the reasons why I walked away from the game. It wasn’t that I couldn’t play the game anymore,” Ellis told Empire Sports Media.

“It’s just felt like that my mental health was way more important. I felt like my family and kids needed me more. There’s a lot of things that affected me off the court. I haven’t had a father in my life and I have to balance fatherhood with my NBA professional life. It was challenging.”

Ellis took care of his battle off the court because he felt that held him back on the court.

“So, my family was the most important to me. I had to get my household, my family in order and get my mind back. So once my mind got back, I started lifting and running and my body started to feel good. I was able to release that mental pressure and really get back and re-focused,” Ellis said.

“So, the 2017 Monta Ellis, he was balancing a lot of things. I didn’t feel like it was healthy for me and for the team as well. If they couldn’t get into the Monta Ellis flow, I had to get away from it. I did that and it was a good decision because I’m in a better mindset. My wife and kids, they were happy to get to see me more, be around more. That was the blessing.”

It was indeed a blessing. But it was also a curse.

When Ellis felt he’s ready for an NBA comeback, the league has moved on from him.

But he’s not yet losing hope. Ellis is determined to find his way back to the NBA as he did with his life.

These days, he keeps himself in shape by working out four days a week, coaching his kids and other kids in his AAU program, Ellis Elite. He still trains with an NBA trainer while waiting for the right opportunity.

“We’ve been training four days a week. We take Fridays off. He works out in Michael Johnson Performance – the top athlete’s performance institution here in Dallas. So he does that two-hour workout every Monday, Wednesday Friday, the whole four years he was out of the league. You could check Michael Johnson’s record,” long-time NBA trainer Djamel Jackson told Empire Sports Media.

Jackson, who has trained Mo Williams, Julius Randle, Draymond Green, Jeremy Lin, Emmanuel Mudiay, Isiah Austin, Rashad Butler, Terrance Ferguson, Malik Newman, saw up close how Ellis had grown a lot as a person during his NBA hiatus.

“I have been working with kids all my life. There’s certain patience that you develop, you become compassionate. Once you get a little older, some of the things that you love or you walked away from, you kinda appreciate a little bit more. He got young kids. He got young sons that are really good basketball players. Being able to watch their pops in the league a couple of more years will help lift them up. He definitely has grown as a friend, as a father, as a player. Once you get a little older, you kinda get to mature,” Jackson said.

Derrius Nelson, a FIBA-certified agent and an NBA scout from Serbia-based DaggerBasket Agency, is now Ellis current business manager. They have spent many nights talking about what-ifs and mapping out a way back to the league. Nelson got Ellis a $2 million offer to play in China, but Ellis turned it down because he wanted to be with his family during the pandemic and stay closer to the NBA.

Ellis acknowledged the mistakes of his youth, and he had made amends. He’s been working hard for that elusive second chance.

“I’ve been trying for a couple of years. I just got nobody take a chance on me, bringing me for the training camp to show what I can still do. The way how I walked away from it kind of hinder that a little bit because they didn’t know the mindset I was in, the things that were going on,” Ellis said. “But it is what it is. If I have an opportunity to do it, it is what it is. If I don’t, I’ll still be a husband and a father and I have an AAU program. I’m good either way. But to come back, to be able challenge myself and do the thing that I haven’t done in a while, that will be a big challenge that I am willing to accept if it comes.”

While the NBA is getting younger, the league’s older guys and Ellis’ contemporaries are still killing it and milking money. Kyle Lowry, 35, just signed a new $90 million deal with the Miami Heat. The Phoenix Suns locked up Chris Paul, 36, to a whopping four-year, $120 million. And then there are minimum veterans like Carmelo Anthony, now set to chase a ring with his old buddy LeBron James.

Ellis wants to come back for the challenge, not the money, at this point in his life. After all, he’s earned more than $100 million throughout his career.

“I don’t play the game of basketball for the money. Like, it’s good to get the money. I wanted to make a better life for my family and the NBA allowed me to do that. My focus is, my thing is just do what I can do, control what I can control and put everything in God’s hands,” Ellis said.

All Ellis wanted is an opportunity to show that he still has it and can help a team win.

“My main thing is, just bring me in and give me a look. Like you could make the decision on me. I just want a shot. I ain’t asking for a contract to get $5 million, $10 million, or even $1 million. All I’m asking is give me a look. That’s all and let my game speak for itself. I just want an opportunity, a workout, and that’s not the end of the world, that’s not gonna hurt anybody,” Ellis said.

Ellis built a reputation as a shotmaker and playmaker. Though he was knocked for his defense, the numbers and some eye tests suggest otherwise.

Ellis knows his days as a go-to guy are over. He’s willing to accept whatever role a team has for him to win.

“That’s a team decision if that was to happen. Whatever role that was. Whatever the coach asks me to do. I can’t control that situation. Being at the age that I am, I haven’t played in a while so being the time I was away from the game, I can’t come in and play the role that I want. It’s all about the team giving me an opportunity and what’s the best fit for them. And I gotta play that role the best way possible,” Ellis said.

Ellis played with pace in the NBA. But there wasn’t so much space during his prime. While his athleticism has started to fade with age, his wisdom grew with experience.

“It’s still basketball. It’s all about defending and putting the ball on the hoop and making plays for others,” Ellis said. “The NBA is very, very young now. So, it’s more athletic, faster, and I have always played a fast game.”

Ellis was just a 31 percent three-point shooter throughout his career, but he will not be jacking up shots as he used to be. His ideal role in a potential NBA return is to break down the second unit’s defenses to score or make plays for his teammates in sporadic minutes. But Jackson revealed how Ellis has worked on his shot not just to prepare for a potential NBA comeback.

“That’s the one that has definitely gotten better. As he aged, he’s gotten better. And he’s working with kids. So, when you’re teaching kids how to shoot, it matters that you learn how to shoot better. It could go around the low 40s, and you know, with the spacing, the new rules, and his knowledge of the game, as you get older, you get better,” Jackson said.

“The NBA tells us, the system tells us that as you get older, you get better and smarter because you know how to beat younger guys.”

Jackson believes playoff teams could use someone like Ellis on their bench to provide leadership and scoring.

“Any team right now — the league is now so young — the (Los Angeles) Lakers or Brooklyn (Nets) but aside from those teams, every team needs some veteran help. Every team I think needs at least 4-5 veterans. The league is just too young right now,” Jackson said.

The Lakers have been stacking up on veterans. The Nets could pair him with Patty Mills in their backcourt off the bench. A Mavericks homecoming could also be a perfect marriage with him as another shotmaker and playmaker to come off the bench when Luka Doncic takes a breather. The Portland Trail Blazers, who are at a crossroads with Damian Lillard’s future hanging in the balance, could use Ellis as a scoring punch and a veteran leader off the bench.

“That would be a role that I am willing to accept. I could do a lot within that role to help a playoff team. I still got a lot of gas in my tank. My body is healthy. My mind is focused. I could definitely help a playoff team with the skills and the knowledge of the game I have right now,” Ellis said.

It’s been four years since Ellis last played an NBA game. A lot has happened since. But the most important thing is he found himself again and the joy of playing basketball. He found his way back to his life. Now, he wants to find a way back to the NBA.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo