New York Knicks Defense Earning Praise Around NBA

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Ticketed for a long and miserable season of losing and tanking, the New York Knicks find themselves 7-8 and 6th in the Eastern Conference with just under a month played in this compressed and truncated 2020-2021 NBA regular season.

An All-Star caliber start from Julius Randle and improvement from 2019 3rd overall pick RJ Barrett along with some 1990s-era basketball has head coach Tom Thibodeau’s team more than exceeding expectations early on. If you’re 7-8 while being 29th in points scored per game and 27th in points scored per 100 possessions, you’ve gotta be doing something right defensively. And the Knicks surely are.

With the slowest pace in the league at 96 possessions per 48 minutes, New York’s 102.7 points allowed per game is number one in the league, aided by Sunday’s 105-75 win over the Boston Celtics and Monday’s 91-84 triumph against the Orlando Magic.

“I don’t believe that’s who this team is,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters after his team shot 29.8% from the field and 7-for-46 (15.2%) from three in All-Star guard Kemba Walker’s season debut. “We had a clunker. You try to have as few of those as you can. … We just looked like we were in mud today.”

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After beating the Celts in Boston, the Knicks returned home the next day and held Orlando to 33.7% shooting from the field and 12-for-38 (31.6%) from three.

“They’re extremely disciplined,” Magic head coach Steve Clifford told me after their practice on Tuesday. “They protect the paint. They don’t give up anything easy.”

The Knicks are not only 7th in the NBA in opponent field goal percentage in this restricted area at 59.5%, per NBA.com, they’re first in opponents’ field goal percentage overall at 43.3% and first from 3-point range at 31.2%.

Clifford noted that obviously Orlando shot the ball poorly on Monday, but implied that there weren’t enough stretches where his team was able to space well and play downhill. Another thing he noticed about the New York defense was how it’s locked in on taking away its opponent’s strength.

Against the Magic, the Knicks were double-teaming the pick-and-roll action featuring All-Star center Nikola Vucevic, “which is a big part of our game,” Clifford said. After scoring nine points in the first 4:55 of the game, Vucevic managed just 15 more points the rest of the way. Though 24 points in a contest seems like a lot out of context, limiting Orlando’s best player for the vast majority of the game proved to be crucial.

New York’s defensive prowess will be tested over the next week with a four-game West swing at Golden State, Sacramento, Portland and Utah. The Kings, Blazers and Jazz are currently all in the top 10 in the league in offensive efficiency, putting one of the league’s most surprising units to date up to a strong test.

“But Tom’s teams are always hard to play against,” Clifford said of his old friend Thibodeau, “and their defense is really good.”

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