The 2017-18 season is barely a week old and the New York Knicks have already grappled with a disappointing reality: Kristaps Porzingis can’t do it all by himself.
With Al Horford and the Boston Celtics’ stingy interior defense in full control last night, Porzingis went just 3-for-14 in one of his worst-ever shooting performances as an NBA professional. On top of that, the Celtics’ sensational young duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum combined for 45 points on 18-for-31 from the floor, while the Knicks made only one of their 12 three-point attempts.
Neutralized early, the Knicks failed to adjust, lost the game 110-89 and fell to a disappointing 0-3 record so far this year. Following the defeat, head coach Jeff Hornacek addressed the Knicks’ struggles and poor shooting display head-on.
“I thought we hung our heads a little bit and then kind of felt sorry for ourselves that we weren’t making the shots,” Hornacek said during his postgame press conference. “I think the effort was still there, it’s just not quick enough.”
The Knicks held onto Carmelo Anthony for as long as they could this summer, perhaps for this exact reason. Three games are a small sample size but life after Anthony has gotten off to a less-than-stellar start. The Knicks appear unable to tread water as they attempt to figure out how to outright replace a future Hall of Famer. As messy as the breakup between Anthony and the Knicks became, the hard truth of moving on without him has been even tougher. Still, it’s a task that Hornacek must look to improve upon each game.
“That’s we told the guys, there’s going to be nights when you can’t shoot the ball very well, that’s when you really lock in [on] defense and try to win it that way,” Hornacek said. “It’s one of those nights where you flush it down the toilet and get ready for the next one.”
It’s been understandably difficult to supplant Anthony. His late-game presence and poised shot-making abilities have been sorely missed already — and the issue of redistributing his high-volume usage has left the coaching staff scratching their heads. In 2016-17, Anthony hoisted up 18.8 shots per game, the 10th-most in the NBA. Of course, the ideal candidate to carry more of the offensive load is Porzingis and his attempts had ballooned from 14.9 to 22.5 per game before last night’s effort.
Horford, who contributed 13 points, 13 rebounds and five assists of his own, talked postgame about the Celtics’ desire to limit Porzingis and make things tough for the Knicks’ blossoming star.
“He’s a guy that you really have to make sure you stay locked in with, he’s just very dangerous, can get going easily and I think we did a job of really chasing him on everything, contesting all his shots,” Horford said to CLNS Media. “I feel like we really did a good job with the gameplan that coach wanted us to do with him.”
With Porzingis effectively bottled up, the game’s eventual result was virtually decided by halftime. Sans Anthony, the Knicks run significantly fewer isolation plays and the ball has moved more freely around the court than in years past. However, it’s a largely empty practice without somebody finishing off the possession with a bucket, an issue New York has yet to solve through three games.
“Some guys had some rough nights shooting. Then, I think, we got tentative, guys who weren’t making shots passed up on some shots that they probably should’ve taken,” Hornacek said. “Just a rough night for us.”
If the Knicks can’t win when Porzingis drops 30 points and get definitively blown out when he’s smothered, who in the world can Hornacek turn to from there?
One candidate for improvement includes Tim Hardaway Jr., the 6-foot-6 guard New York gave $71 million to this offseason. Through their trio of defeats, Hardaway Jr. has managed just 28 points on 9-for-37 shooting — a mark enhanced by his miserable 2-for-11 night against Boston. Hardaway Jr. isn’t destined to shoot 24.4 percent for the entire season, but he’s struggled to be Porzingis’ right-hand man and scoring sidekick so far.
Still, Hornacek has backed Hardaway Jr. to break out of his early-season slump before long.
“Anyone is frustrated when they’re not making shots,” Hornacek said. “I don’t think it’s getting [Hardaway Jr.] down, he’s a competitor, he wants to make shots and help us win a game. I think he’s a tough-minded kid and he’s going to battle through it.”
Few franchises can throw able defender after defender at their opposition like Boston can. But as the Celtics quickly found out, the Knicks lacked the creativity to dig themselves out of the hole with Porzingis clamped down. In fact, according to Courtney Lee, the Knicks have labored to even run their offense correctly, noting his frustration later on in the locker room.
“If we miss shots, we miss shots — that’s part of the game,” Lee said. “But not being in the right position takes away a shot for your teammates — we’ve got to learn the plays.”
Earlier this morning, Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News tweeted that Hornacek recently pinned the play-running issues on the shortened preseason, but it’s still an alarming problem almost two weeks into the year. Between Hardaway Jr.’s slow start, rookie Frank Ntilikina’s lingering ankle injury and their offensive forgetfulness, the Knicks could be in danger of dropping into the Eastern Conference basement for good.
A potential option for the Knicks could be trading for Phoenix Suns’ guard Eric Bledsoe, something the franchise has at least talked about according to Basketball Insiders’ Michael Scotto. While the Knicks are reportedly not interested in parting with Willy Hernangomez and Ntilikina, who they took at No. 8 overall in this year’s draft, it’s possible the front office could ease off of that stance if the Knicks’ struggles continue throughout the early stages of the season.
Either way, Hornacek and the Knicks have found themselves looking for answers very early on this season. Granted, the Oklahoma City Thunder — Anthony’s new franchise — and the Celtics project to be two of the NBA’s better teams in 2017-18, so the 0-3 record itself isn’t the end of the world, but the troubling path they took to get there might be.
For now, the Knicks will need to tap into their own processes to get things back on track Friday against the Brooklyn Nets. It was never going to be easy without Anthony around to bail this young team out of trouble offensively, but it’s now clear that progressing and evolving as a new unit will be key in the coming months. As Porzingis and Hardaway Jr. ease into their heightened roles — and Ntilikina eventually makes it on the floor — the Knicks will naturally improve too.
Still, more losses like last night’s to the Celtics could be on the horizon if they’re not more careful, the head coach warned.
“They’re young, they’re going to have to learn how to get through nights like that,” Hornacek said.
For the Knicks’ sake, let’s hope they learn how to do that sooner rather than later.