Knicks tease with their ceiling in crucial win over LeBron-less Lakers

Despite the New York Knicks‘ inconsistent play recently, one thing stood out about them for Los Angeles Lakers coach Frank Vogel ahead of their Tuesday matchup.

“I think the biggest thing is the volume of threes they’re shooting,” Vogel said before the game. “Obviously, Julius Randle is an elite player. The volume of threes he’s been creating and the space they’re creating for him to attack one-on-one is probably the biggest difference between last year and this year’s team. And Kemba (Walker) and Evan (Fournier), being new additions, have been helping on that.”

Vogel’s thoughts were uncannily prescient. It played out the way he described it as the Knicks starters put together their best performance in a 106-100 win over the LeBron James-less Lakers in front of a soldout crowd at Madison Square Garden.

Julius Randle bullied Anthony Davis underneath for the game’s first basket. Then Fournier got hot outside while Walker and RJ Barrett joined the scoring fray as the Knicks zoomed to a 10-0 start and a 36-20 first-quarter lead.

The quartet scored all but two points in that mesmerizing opening that showed a glimpse of how good the Knicks can be when everything comes together for them. They combined to hit 11 of 18 shots. Nine of them came off assists. All five starters made an assist, with Randle and Walker handing out three each.

Their rampage continued at the onset of the second quarter. The Knicks bench, a picture of consistency and fluidity throughout the team’s rough start, padded the lead to 25.

For 15 glorious minutes, the Garden was Eden. Everybody eats when the Knicks are sharing the ball.

“I think if you have an unselfish team, they’re gonna recognize when someone gets hot or has a good matchup,” Thibodeau said after the game. “The ball always finds energy.”

“We’re doing the right things when we’re pushing the ball, and we’re attacking the rim. Oftentimes, those are the best shots that you can get. You get to drive, and then it’s pass, pass, and then you’re walking into a three so that it gives you good rhythm.”

Fournier walked into rhythm threes and hit 6 of 9. His hot shooting kept him in the game and avoided what could have been a ninth fourth-quarter benching. Fournier led the Knicks with 26 points, his best offensive performance since a career-high-tying 32 points during the season opener against the Boston Celtics.

“I’m trying to — regardless of what’s going on and how we play — I always try to focus on myself, look at myself and try to play the best I can,” Fournier said. “[I’m] trying to be aggressive, trying to take what’s in front of me, and be decisive in everything I do.”

Fournier took shots with no hesitations, unlike in the past when his pump fakes usually led to tough shots.

But as great as the Knicks looked for a one-and-a-half quarter, the ills that plagued them won’t just go away. Their offense got stagnant. Their energy on defense went down with it.

The Lakers came storming back and tied it at 79 on a Carmelo Anthony breakaway slam. With Derrick Rose out with a sprained ankle, Immanuel Quickley rose to the occasion. The second-year guard hit four back-breaking triples in the fourth quarter to seal the deal.

“This game is a perfect example of how we play. We are very capable of playing really, really good basketball, getting big leads,” Fournier said. “Then all of sudden, not so well.”

The Knicks have been consistently inconsistent. They have led by double-digits in 11 games this season. Three of them ended in a horrible loss, blowing a 13-point lead in their first loss to Orlando Magic, a 15-point lead to Toronto Raptors, and a 16-point lead against Charlotte Hornets. Then they nearly squandered double-digit leads in five of their 10 wins, including this one against the Lakers.

“We have to keep playing the same way [whether] up 20, down 15 or tied game,” Fournier said. “For us, I think the key is going to find that balance and that rhythm. We can really be good, man! We just have to trust how we play. And when we have [found] a way to play, just stay with it.”

Randle negated the flu-stricken Anthony Davis’ 20 points. Both forwards shot 7 for 17 from the floor. But Randle dominated the glass with 16 rebounds, 15 coming on the defensive end. Thanks to Randle’s Herculean effort, the Knicks outrebounded the bigger Lakers, 52-50.

The Knicks are rolling when their shots are falling like Tuesday night (15 of 34 from downtown).

Their roller-coaster season continued with another teaser of their ceiling.

Over the last five games, the Knicks’ defense has tightened up, giving up just 99.2 points per game. Despite winning only two of their previous five games, their offense has started to balance out, although in spurts. The common denominator in those two wins is that Fournier got it going while Randle only logged in three assists in two of those three losses. Randle had five assists, tied with Walker, against the Lakers.

The Knicks are 7-3 this season when Randle has at least five assists. Conversely, the Knicks are 1-5 when he only dishes three assists or less.

“Like I said before, [Evan’s] a huge part of our team. I’ll make sure that I establish him and Kemba. And everybody gets comfortable where we’re just going out there playing, and we know what’s going to happen, where our shots are going to come from,” Randle said. “We know that we have each other’s back on the defensive end. That’s what makes the game fun.”

Never mind if James (due to suspension) missed his only visit to the Madison Square Garden this season. Never mind if Davis, who woke up Tuesday with a slight fever, was not 100 percent. It could have been a different story. But what matters for the Knicks is picking up a galvanizing win that they hope can bring momentum as they continue a brutal stretch in their schedule.

They will host the red-hot Phoenix Suns, winners of their last 13 games, on Black Friday.

It will be another tough test for the Knicks’ starters, whose chemistry is starting to build up in recent games. Against the Lakers, the Knicks’ starting unit had 16 of the team’s 23 assists. The next step is building consistency.

“It definitely will develop. This is what, 18 games in? This sh*t takes time, bro,” Randle said. “The good thing about us is we’ve stayed encouraged. We stayed positive. We had highs, we’ve had lows. But once it starts clicking, we’re going to be a really, really good team.”

The Knicks were in the first quarter, just like how Vogel conjured that Lakers’ nightmare.

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

Report: Knicks in trade talks for Magic’s Terrence Ross; Lakers offered Kyle Kuzma

terrence ross, knicks

The New York Knicks‘ phone lines are busy exploring all their options ahead of tonight’s NBA Draft — from trading up into the lottery and swapping their picks for a veteran.

Chris Duarte remains the trade-up target for the Knicks, according to several reports. At the same time, Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer added that they are also in trade talks to acquire veteran guard Terrence Ross from Orlando Magic. Ian Begley of SNY was the first to note Ross’s involvement in trade discussions with several teams.

“League sources say the Knicks are involved in trade talks for Magic guard Terrence Ross. They would also like to move up in the draft, possibly to select Chris Duarte,” O’Connor wrote.

Ross is owed $24 million over the next two years and is due for a $12.5 million salary next season. With the Knicks having an ample cap space this summer, they can just absorb Ross’s salary in exchange for picks. The 30-year old guard is coming off his finest season, averaging a career-best 15.6 points and 2.3 assists. He shot 34 percent on 5.7 three-point attempts.

Ross torched the Knicks last season with a pair of explosive games. He had 19 points on 4-of-8 three-pointers and three assists in their first meeting back in January. He came back with a 30-point outing on 5-of-6 shooting from deep in their second meeting that he laced up with six rebounds, four assists, two steals, and two blocks.

The Knicks are looking to add more shooting and veteran presence at the wings with Alec Burks, and Reggie Bullock set to become free agents.

Meanwhile, the Indiana Pacers balked at the Knicks’ offer to trade up for their 13th pick in the lottery with their eyes on Oregon swingman Chris Duarte, per J. Michael of Indy Star.

“The New York Knicks have cap space and have expressed interest in jumping up from Nos. 19 and 21 for a shot at Duarte. They’re open to part with players on their roster to get it done but they don’t have a desirable group,” according to the Indy Star report.

Kevin Knox, who is still on a rookie contract with a cap-friendly $5.8 million owed next season, used to be high on the Pacers’ list, but that has dipped after the former lottery pick failed to carve out a meaningful role under coach Tom Thibodeau last season. Suffice to say that there’s no clear pathway for the Knicks to move up to the Pacers’ spot in the lottery.

“A little more than a season ago, Kevin Knox generated some interest from the Pacers, league sources said at the time, but that never went anywhere and he has since fallen off. With their cap space, the Knicks are able to absorb any undesirable contracts to make a deal but the Pacers don’t have any,” the report added.

Interestingly, according to the same Indy Star report, the Knicks were one of the teams who received a call from the Los Angeles Lakers involving Kyle Kuzma.

“They offered Kyle Kuzma to Indiana for a pick swap that was declined (also have offered him to Utah, Minnesota, Cleveland, New York, and likely others),” the report said.

It is not clear if the Knicks-Lakers discussion gained traction. But it seems that talks are dead now as the Lakers have reportedly pivoted and stepped up their efforts to land Sacramento Kings’ Buddy Hield with a package centered on Kuzma.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Knicks blow chance to clinch playoff berth, fall to LeBron-less Lakers in OT

knicks, lakers, derrick rose

Almost but not quite.

The New York Knicks couldn’t hold on to a 10-point fourth-quarter lead and came one rebound away from finally ending a seven-year playoff drought.

Instead, they watched Wesley Matthews beat them off the boards to send the game into overtime.

Then Talen Horton-Tucker had the last laugh in his matchup with his childhood hero Derrick Rose in the extra session.

Tucker hit the game-winning three with 21.1 seconds left as the LeBron James-less Lakers survived the Knicks in a 101-99 overtime thriller late Tuesday night at the Staples Center.

The Knicks failed to put up a decent shot in the last play, with RJ Barrett throwing up a wild shot in front of a Lakers’ suffocating defense.

“Rebounding beat us tonight. All we had to do is get that last rebound (on) the last shot of the game. Everyone’s got to get a body on everyone,” New York coach Tom Thibodeau lamented.

The Lakers outrebounded the Knicks, 53-41, and 14-5 in the offensive glass. 

It was a heartbreaking loss for the Knicks, who blew a golden opportunity to clinch a playoff berth after the Miami Heat beat the Boston Celtics earlier.

They also had one less problem with James opting to delay his return from an ankle injury. But they couldn’t capitalize. 

The loss sent them to a complicated three-way tie with the Heat and the Atlanta Hawks at 38-31.

Atlanta momentarily assumed the fourth seed while Miami moved up to fifth and New York tumbled to sixth with three games left.

The Knicks will try to punch a playoff ticket at home, needing only one win in their three homestands against the San Antonio Spurs, Charlotte Hornets, and the Celtics.

They wouldn’t be in this precarious situation had they didn’t lose poise down the stretch.

A Frank Ntilikina three-pointer gave the Knicks an 85-75 lead with 7:35 left in the regulation. But the Lakers battled back and came within five twice before a Matthews’ three-pointer, and Andre Drummond layup tied the game at 89 apiece.

Rose sank a floater to give the Knicks a two-point edge, 91-89, with 1:37 remaining.

Julius Randle, who showed up against his former team with a game-high 31 points, couldn’t bring the Knicks home.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope missed a wide-open three from the corner, but Matthews tipped it to send the game into overtime.

The Knicks battled back from five points down to lead by one in the extra time behind Rose and Randle. Rose appeared to have the clincher when he stole the ball from Tucker with a minute left. But a Randle turnover set up Tucker’s heroics.

Tucker, who also starred in Simeon Career Academy like Ross, delayed the Knicks’ march to the playoffs. The second-year Lakers guard came off the bench to contribute 13 points and 10 assists in an impressive showing.

“Not too many kids from Chicago can say they did that,” said Horton-Tucker, who is set to become a restricted free agent this summer. 

Rose scored a season-high 27 points with six rebounds, six assists, and three steals but still was not enough.

No other Knick scored in double figures besides Randle and Rose. Barrett turned in a dud with only eight points on 2-of-13 shooting, including 0-for-7 from deep.

The Knicks held Anthony Davis to 20 points on 8-of-23 shots, but he had plenty of help. Kyle Kuzma returned from sickbay to lead the Lakers with 23 off the bench. Andre Drummond, who shunned the Knicks in the buyout market, had a huge double-double night with 16 points and 18 rebounds.

If there’s any consolation for the Knicks, their defeat pushed the Lakers to 39-30 and just one game behind the West’s sixth seed Dallas Mavericks (40-29).

New York holds Dallas’ first-round pick in the coming Draft as part of the Kristaps Porzingis deal.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

7 days that will shape the 2021 New York sports calendar

It was the least of our worries, but New York sports took a beating in 2020. These dates in 2021 could be steps in the right direction.

2020 has come and (finally) gone…now what?

Defeatist as the naysayers may be, they’re right in the fact that our problems don’t immediately disappear in 2021r. It’s the least of our issues at this point in time…and, frankly, that probably applies on an eternal basis…but the axiom applies for New York’s major sports teams. Any hint of good juju will do in these trying times, but every team knows they have work to do that won’t be accomplished with a mere calendar flip. However, there are plenty of names giving us hope and excitement, and the 2021 ledger has plenty of days as well that could help this area’s athletic programs turn the corner and get back in the right direction.

These seven days could win up changing everything…

(unscheduled events, like the WNBA Draft, Buffalo Bills wild card game, etc. are not included due to lack of date)

January 14: Islanders-Rangers open at MSG

Critics have remarked that, in addition to their current woes, the modern New York sports teams don’t much hope for the future. The New York Rangers seemed to be a welcome counterargument through a rebuilding process that netted them (pun intended) two elite scorers (Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad) and heir to Henrik Lundqvist in Igor Shesterkin. The Rangers had to bid farewell to several friendly faces in the process (including Lundqvist, Mats Zuccarello, and Derek Stepan) but reloaded with a strong prospect pool. Their uncanny ability to move up through the draft ranks thanks to the bounce of the ping-pong ball also saw Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière don blue.

But their biggest rivals through a bit of a wrench into the good feelings with a length playoff run that ended two wins away from their first Stanley Cup final appearance since 1983. Under head coach Barry Trotz, the Islanders have won playoff series in consecutive years for the first time since that magic Cup run in the 1980s. John Tavares has been quickly forgotten, with the new Islander core led by homegrown talents Mathew Barzal, Josh Bailey, and Brock Nelson. Washington Capitals alum Semyon Varlamov has manned the pipes, forming a strong veteran platoon with Thomas Griess.

With the 2021 NHL season set to get underway this month, the battle for New York ice recommences at Madison Square Garden, the latest struggle serving as the season opener for both teams. The last get-together was one for the ages from a Rangers standpoint, as they took the gritty tilt in a 4-3 final, with Zibanejad scoring on a one-timer from Panarin 28 seconds into a 3-on-3 overtime session.

January 18: Islanders Battle for Respect vs. Boston

With the opening faceoff approaching, you’d almost never think that the Islanders were one of the final four teams battling for the Stanley Cup last season. The preseason accolades in the Eastern Conference include the usual suspects (Tampa Bay, Boston, Washington), many have pegged the Islanders as afterthoughts who may miss the playoffs entirely. Their temporary divisional settings, made to minimize travel, are packed with matchups against dangerous competition. That includes a whopping eight matchups with Boston, who joins what was essentially the Metropolitan division this season.

While the Islanders may have to wait a year to take revenge on the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning, they have a big chance to make an early statement against the Bruins at Nassau Coliseum. Boston took two-of-three meetings last season, with the Islanders’ win coming in shootout fashion last December.

February 18: Nets @ Lakers

Just before 2020 took away sports, the Brooklyn Nets walked into Staples Center and stole a 104-102 decision from a Los Angeles Lakers team that was seven months away from championship glory. Brooklyn did so without Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and a full-time head coach, having parted ways with Kenny Atkinson three days prior. Spencer Dinwiddie drained the game-winning jumper with 28 seconds remaining.

Brooklyn’s return trip could be a potential NBA Finals preview with both teams firing out of the gate in the early going. It will also mark the first meeting between Durant and LeBron James since Christmas 2018, when James and the Lakers torched Durant’s Golden State Warriors in a 127-101 final. The battle between Durant and James for the Western Conference title came to an end shortly after, as James’ season was never the same after an injury he sustained shortly after.

April 1: The Cohen Era Begins

Mets fans have waited a long time for some long-term, consistent hope for this franchise. They believe that new owner Steve Cohen can finally provide it. In his brief time at the New York helm, Cohen has shown a willingness to splurge on name-brand talent, thus far adding catcher James McCann to their arsenal.

The Mets’ first game under Cohen’s watch comes on April 1 against the Washington Nationals, the defending champions under a full-season setting. Both the Mets and Nationals are looking for redemption after the shortened campaign, the pair uniting for the NL East cellar with matching 26-34 records last season.

New York Jets
(Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

April 21: NFL Draft

Both metropolitan football squads will have major decisions to make when the NFL convenes in Cleveland (hopefully in person) for its annual selection proceedings. Following the Sugar Bowl semifinal in New Orleans, the Jets will be situated in the middle of one of the most intriguing quarterback debates in recent memory, as they’ll likely choose between Justin Fields or Trevor Lawrence at the top of the draft board. Of course, this will come after the Jets make a decision on their current throw Sam Darnold…could they be persuaded to take another blocker or a receiving weapon instead?

Meanwhile, the Giants are in a most uncanny position, one that partially depends on how they do on Sunday afternoon against the Dallas Cowboys (1 p.m. ET, Fox). They could either be defending NFC East champions or hitting the clock third on draft day. Do they stick with Daniel Jones, or perhaps take a waiver on BYU’s Zach Wilson? Will general manager Dave Gettleman still be around to oversee it? Either way, the decisions each team makes on this day will affect their respective futures for years to come.

May 4: The Astros (Finally) visit The Bronx

Time will tell just if the handling of the ongoing health crisis will allow fans to return to Yankee Stadium. Even if they’re welcomed back on a limited basis, the top game to attend on everyone’s list would likely be the Houston Astros’ first visit.

Much was made about MLB’s response…or lack thereof…to the Astros’ sign-stealing operation. While the Astros got an earful from opposing fans upon visits to spring training facilities, they were shielded from jeers in the regular season by public health restrictions. Even if only a limited group is allowed into Yankee Stadium by the time May rolls around, one can guarantee that they’ll make their prescience felt when the hated Astros come by. Houston may have taken the past two series matchups with the Yankees, taking the ALCS from them in 2017 and 2019, but most of their wins have come within the confines of Minute Maid Park. In those playoff meetings, the Astros were 2-4 in The Bronx. It also mark a reunion between the Astros and Gerrit Cole, now the Yankees ace after inking a $324 million contract in New York.

July 2: The Subway Series Arrives

Cohen’s purchase and splurging in Queens has raised a question in the Big Apple…is the city becoming a Mets town? The Yankees have been consistent over the past few seasons, currently working on a four-year postseason streak that has seen them advance at least one round in each visit. But that seems to be the major issue: the Yankees appear to be complacent with just that: meaningful games in September and October, rather than championship rings. The Cole signing notwithstanding, numerous free agents have slipped through the Yankees’ grip, and their most consistent hitter in this process, DJ LeMahieu, remains a free agent.

The Mets will have a chance to show how far they’ve come during Cohen’s first Subway Series set, which will be staged on Independence Day weekend at Yankee Stadium. Small as it may seem on a national scale, clinching the Subway Series could do a lot for them from a personal standpoint. Queens hasn’t outright won the annual sets since 2013, though things have ended in a tie four times in that span (including the past three).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags