Lack of chemistry, true point guard keep Knicks fumbling

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. 

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Robinson’s contract extension talks cast large shadow over Knicks’ fall to dominant Embiid, 76ers

Joel Embiid destroyed both Mitchell Robinson and rookie Jericho Sims while James Harden notched a triple-double.

The new 76ers star duo was unstoppable in the Philadelphia 76ers’ 125-109 win over the New York Knicks Sunday at Madison Square Garden.

The 76ers used a 19-4 closing run to break away from a tight 106-105 lead with 7:01 left.

It was the Knicks’ 15th loss in the last 18 games as they continue to fade from the play-in scenario and fall into the NBA Draft lottery range.

Embiid and Harden played off each other, combining for 33 of the 76ers’ NBA season-high 39 free throws. There was nothing the Knicks could do to stop them.

“Unstoppable,” Embiid told reporters after the game describing his two-man game with Harden.

Embiid was dominant with 37 points, nine rebounds, and three blocks. He made a living at the stripes, sinking 23 out of 27 free throws. Harden matched his season-high in assists with 16 to add to his 29 points and 10 rebounds. The 76ers improved to 2-0 with Harden in the lineup since the blockbuster trade deadline swap with Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and future picks.

Robinson and Sims fouled out consecutively early in the fourth quarter to hasten the Knicks’ demise.

Sims played admirably, filling in for backup center Nerlens Noel, who is reportedly nursing a plantar fasciitis injury. Sims grabbed 10 rebounds — all in the first half — and added two assists, one steal, and one block in more than 18 minutes on the floor. But he fouled out with 9:14 left.

A little more than 20 seconds later, Robinson soon followed. Robinson went out with an underwhelming performance anew. He finished with only six points and four rebounds in more than 16 minutes.

Before the game, NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Robinson’s ongoing contract extension talks with the Knicks are becoming a cause of concern.

“For the Knicks, Greeny (Mike Greenberg), the looming free agency of their 23-year-old starting center, Mitchell Robinson—it’s a concern for New York,” Wojnarowski said in the NBA Countdown. “They’ve had talks with his agent, Thad Foucher, about an extension throughout the season. The Knicks can pay Robinson, under the collective bargaining agreement, four years and upward of $48 million before June 30. They’ve not reached an agreement on that, and it’s unclear that they will before free agency when Robinson will be unrestricted.”

Robinson already strung up three consecutive duds that started with a two-point, seven-rebound performance against Drummond and the Brooklyn Nets before the All-Star break. He was held scoreless for the first time this season against Bam Adebayo and Miami Heat last Friday. It coincided with the reports of Robinson’s father went missing for close to two weeks before being found safely earlier this week in Missouri.

Robinson posted a cryptic post on his Instagram story following his scoreless performance against the Heat.

The Knicks have resisted dealing Robinson at the trade deadline despite reportedly drawing interests from several teams, including the Detroit Pistons, who will have plenty of cap space this summer, according to an SNY report.

RJ Barrett and Evan Fournier led the Knicks with 24 apiece.

Barrett continued his ascent with another solid game to follow up his career-high 46-point effort. He added five rebounds and six assists, but his foul shooting woes continued making only 6 of 10 free throws. Fournier was limited to only one field goal attempt in the fourth quarter, which he missed, after torching the 76ers with six treys in the first three quarters.

Immanuel Quickley came out of his shooting funk and exploded for 21 points, but it was not enough to bail out the Knicks. Julius Randle finished with a quiet 16 points while adding 10 rebounds and seven assists.

The Knicks slumped to 11 games under .500 (25-36) and 4.5 games behind the Atlanta Hawks for the final play-in spot with 21 games left. They will face the 76ers again on Wednesday to begin their make-or-break seven-game road trip that will conclude against their crosstown rival Brooklyn Nets two Sundays from now.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Kemba Walker silences doubters as Knicks end 15-game skid vs 76ers

Kemba Walker’s return to New York to play for his hometown Knicks was initially met with mixed reactions.

On the one hand, there was a palpable excitement that the Knicks’ biggest hole would finally be filled by one of the finest New York-bred point guards. But on the other hand, there was also cynical skepticism owing to the past injuries that are fast catching up with him.

Walker’s underwhelming first three games as a Knick only reinforced those doubts. But in an early matchup against one of the Eastern Conference heavyweights, Walker erased them with an All-Star caliber play.

After averaging only 10.3 points in the Knicks’ 2-1 start, the 31-year old Walker, a four-time NBA All-Star, scored a season-high 19 points on five three-pointers and five assists to power the Knicks to cruise to a 112-99 win over the Philadelphia 76ers Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.

The Knicks improved to 3-1 and snapped a 15-game losing spell to the Sixers since Carmelo Anthony’s final game with the franchise in 2017.

After missing his first three shots, Walker caught fire, leading the Knicks’ huge second-quarter surge. In a two-and-a-half-minute stretch, Walker’s 10 straight points blew up the Knicks’ lead to 20 at halftime after trailing by three at the end of the first stanza.

New York outscored Philadelphia, 39-16, in that pivotal quarter.

Walker picked up from where he left off, adding nine points after the first half. The Knicks enjoyed their largest lead, 83-56, on Walker’s back-to-back three-pointer that rocked the Garden.

“I was waiting for that moment,’’ said Walker of his breakthrough game in front of his family, friends, some college and high school teammates, and coaches. “I was waiting for that moment. It was the kind of moment I dreamed of when I was a young kid wanting to be in the NBA, watching the Knicks play, coming to a Knicks game, and seeing how the crowd goes crazy. That was a great moment for me.’’

After watching Derrick Rose closed out the Knicks’ first three games, Walker finally earned the minutes down the stretch and made sure there was no Sixers comeback, unlike their shocking loss to a young Orlando Magic two nights earlier.

“I wouldn’t say it was a relief but it definitely felt good. It was fun. Hopefully, we can have more moments like that,” said Walker who reiterated he had no qualms sitting on the bench down the stretch.

The Knicks returned to playing fun basketball with crisp ball movement that froze the 76ers’ defense.

Their 24 assists on 41 field goals, including 16 of 37 three-point attempts, were a testament to their unselfish play. They had a sizzling start, sinking 15 of their first 23 attempts from downtown.

Their 70 three-pointers made during their 3-1 start tied the 2020-21 Bucks’ record for most makes through the first 4 games of a season in NBA history, per ESPN Stats & Info.

Julius Randle did not have to do the heavy lifting as Walker led five Knicks players in double figures. All 10 players Tom Thibodeau used in the game scored at least four points.

Randle flirted with a triple-double (16 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists), while Evan Fournier came through with 18 points, four threes, and four assists. Derrick Rose again led the Knicks’ bench with 13 points.

“That’s what I love about our team. We have great depth,” Thibodeau said. “Tonight I thought the way Kemba played helped set the tone. Julius was unbelievable in terms of making plays early. That made us unselfish and we all got into a rhythm and we played hard.”

Even Sixers coach Doc Rivers was in awe of the Knicks’ much-improved offense.

“Clearly they’re a better offensive team because they have more shot makers. They have more playmakers,” Rivers said. “That’s one thing about Kemba and Fournier. They’re not just scorers. They’re playmakers and the more playmakers you can add to a team, the better. We didn’t have any playmakers tonight.”

The Sixers could have used one more playmaker and a defensive stopper in Ben Simmons. But the versatile All-Star is out indefinitely as he claims he is still not mentally ready yet to rejoin the team after an ugly fallout last summer.

‘Where is Ben Simmons?’ chants from a good Tuesday night Garden crowd added salt to the Sixers’ injury.

With one less headache, the Knicks’ defense focused on Sixers’ All-Star center Joel Embiid, who was questionable to play before the game due to knee soreness. A bulkier and much stronger Mitchell Robinson played solid one-on-one defense against Embiid. A perfectly timed occasional help defense from the weak side cut off Embiid’s passing lanes, forcing him to commit five turnovers. Embiid struggled with 14 points on 2-of-7 shooting and six rebounds in 31 minutes.

The Knicks also put the clamps on Seth Curry, who ended up with just four points on 2-of-6 shooting after exploding for 28 two nights ago in Oklahoma City. Tobias Harris led Philadelphia with 23 points.

It was the type of response Thibodeau was expecting from his team following their slip-up against the Magic.

“Long before the ball went up tonight, immediately after the [loss to Orlando], I could tell [we’d have a good game],’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We knew we didn’t play well. We got a real group of serious-minded guys. I could tell that night, the next day and last night, the gym was packed with people working. I knew this would be a good test for us.’’

Indeed.

But the tests keep on coming. On Thursday, they will face Thibodeau’s old team, Chicago Bulls, who are off to their best start since 1996.

Both the Knicks and Bulls’ hot starts have pushed the league to add their early showdown for the Eastern Conference’s top spot to NBA TV’s schedule. It could rekindle their rivalry in the 90s when Michael Jordan’s Bulls and Patrick Ewing’s Knicks were the fiercest playoff rivals in the Eastern Conference.

But following a feel-good win like this, Thibodeau warned his team about slacking off like how they played against the Magic in New York after crushing them in Orlando.

“It doesn’t stop,’’ Thibodeau said. “We can’t feel good about tonight. We go to Chicago to play an undefeated team that’s loaded and playing really well. We’ll have to play our best.’’

On the heels of Walker’s breakthrough game for the Knicks, his matchup against Lonzo Ball will also come with intrigue. Ball was on the Knicks’ radar for their starting point guard role as far as the February trade deadline last season.

Then the Bulls snatched Ball with a fat $85-million, four-year contract in a sign-and-trade with the New Orleans Pelicans last summer. On the other hand, Walker fell on the Knicks’ lap on a much cheaper $18-million, two-year deal after his contract buyout with Oklahoma City Thunder.

It will be another opportunity for Walker and the Knicks to shut down the outside noise.

“Those guys are playing really, really well. It’s gonna be a dogfight,” Walker said.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo