Things seemed to have come to a head for the Knicks as they walked off the court at the United Center in Chicago on New Year’s Day. Having just lost their 19th game of the season to put them at four games below .500 in a suddenly competitive Eastern Conference, the team looked defeated in more ways than one. The loss to Chicago had been ugly. Though the Knicks were competitive through the game’s first three quarters, the Bulls got on a prodigious roll in the fourth and the team from New York had nothing with which to respond. They recorded a franchise-low 8 points in the fourth quarter on their way to a 108-81 loss and appeared so disengaged from the game that coach Derek Fisher declared that the team had “politely packed it up and [thrown] it out the window” once the Bulls started percolating in the final quarter, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.
Fast-forward to just six days after that loss to the Bulls and things are looking very different for the Knicks. They came off that loss looking like a team possessed, handing back-to-back defeats to a Hawks team that had bested them in their previous two meetings this season and beating the Miami Heat for just the first time since 2014, all while playing some really smart and exciting basketball. Chalk it up to the team reacting to the shame of a horrible loss or to a fiery hour-long film session with the coaching staff, but the result is indisputable: the Knicks are executing their offense more effectively than they have all season, and that execution, paired with their solid defense, has them winning games against Eastern Conference playoff teams.
“We’re light years away, even though were nowhere near as great as we can be, in terms of our execution,” said Fisher in his comments to the media following Wednesday night’s win over Miami. “The way the ball is moving, the way guys are cutting and recognizing how to clear space for guys to operate, we’re a lot better in those areas, and I think that for…everybody, it allows for us to be more efficient when you do that. It’s a work in progress, but we’re getting a little bit better.”
The key words and phrases in Fisher’s comments—“execution,” “cutting,” “recognizing how to clear space,” and “efficient”—tell the story of how the Knicks have reignited their offense in the games since the loss to the Bulls. That last word in particular is very important, as the biggest statistical improvement has been one of efficiency. Over their past four games, the Knicks have actually taken, on average, less shots and less free throws than they did over the course of the first thirty four games of the season, but their improved efficiency (48.3 field goal percentage compared to 43.2, 38.4 three-point percentage compared to 21.8, and 89 free throw percentage compared to 81) has allowed them to score about 7 points more per game than they did over the rest of the season.
That increase in efficiency has been sparked by the team’s apparent newfound commitment to the cutting, passing, and off-ball space-creating principles of Fisher’s offense, which has functioned to get players more shots in their most efficient areas. In the following clip, for example, Carmelo Anthony works off a strong pick from Robin Lopez to draw essentially the entire Hawks defense to the right side of the floor before whipping a cross-court pass to a spotting-up Arron Afflalo. This sequence, one that the Knicks have run a lot recently, gets Afflalo a wide-open shot on the wing, a spot from which he’s shot over 40% this season.
The Knicks’ rediscovery of off-ball picks has been another key factor in their production of good, open looks. Here, Afflalo jogs to the restricted area and then sprints to the corner, losing Dwyane Wade behind a wall of screens set by Melo and Robin Lopez. He misses the shot, but it’s a great look.
The general spatial awareness that Fisher mentioned in his comments to the media has been another key factor in the Knicks’ creation of high-percentage shots over their past four games. Players seem to be getting a feel for where they need to position themselves to stretch out opposing defenses and they’re getting good at ferreting out the holes that this sort of spacing creates. Here, Lance Thomas drives towards the paint where Melo had been trying to establish post position on Gerald Green. Melo clears out to the strong side corner when Thomas gets to the paint, using his status as a shooting threat to prevent Green from doubling Thomas. While Thomas works the post, Kristaps Porzingis drifts out to the weak-side wing to draw his defender, Chris Bosh, away from the paint. With both Bosh and Thomas’s defender, Justise Winslow, spread on opposite sides of the paint, an open lane is created for Langston Galloway to cut down the middle and receive an easy pass from Thomas for a layup.
Possessions with multiple passes before the shot have been a particularly important recent source of efficient offense for the Knicks. While they’ve had a few dazzling possessions where they’ve whipped passes around the perimeter until an open look emerged, some of their most impressive possessions have been those where they’ve used quick passes to work the ball inside and get good looks at the rim. This possession, which features great passing work from Melo and Robin Lopez, gets an easy shot in the paint for Porzingis.
Perhaps the most critical result of all this picking, passing, and cutting has been the creation of a balanced offensive attack that spreads the responsibility for offense across the entire rotation. Of the players who have been in the rotation in the last four games (and, shocker, there have only really been nine of them), nobody is averaging less than four shots per game or more than fifteen. The scoring has been balanced, too. In the last four games, five players have averaged more than 10 points per game. Melo, who is widely regarded as one of the most dangerous scorers in the NBA, has averaged only 19.8.
This commitment to creating a balanced attack on offense, to having every player on the floor work in concert to create shots by reading the defense and cutting, picking, passing, or posting-up in response seems to be the way Derek Fisher thinks his Knicks should always play. In Melo’s comments after the Miami game, he took it a step further, suggesting that not only is that the way the team should always play, but that, when they play that way, they stand a chance at beating any opponent. “What [the Knicks’ recent performance] tells me,” he said, according to Andrew Keh of the New York Times. “Is that when we play the way we should be playing, we can beat any team that’s out there.”