1) Knicks show Hawks they have plenty of star power already, move to over .500
I’m not comfortable putting those words in the same sentence yet — it is just the second week of the season, after all — but what would have sounded like a pipe dream a few weeks ago suddenly seems possible.
In one of the surprises of the young NBA season, the Knicks are interesting and worth watching. These Knicks play hard, play smart, play focused defense for coach Tom Thibodeau, and already may have all the star power they need to win over New York — and win games.
New York won for the fourth time in five times Monday night, out-executing an improved and more heralded Atlanta Hawks team down the stretch to pick up a come-from-behind win, 113-108. The Knicks were down 15 in the third and fought back to beat the Hawks in Atlanta.
The Knicks have been doing things right since last offseason.
Former superagent Leon Rose came in to run the team and last summer he did something smart — nothing. At least nothing massive (and ill-advised). He didn’t throw a bunch of money at an aging star to win a few games and grab cheap headlines. No blowing cap space on Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul or Gordon Hayward — Rose didn’t do anything that would short-circuit long-term success to win a few games now and appease an impatient owner (and, sometimes, media and fan base).
Rose drafted well, grabbing Obi Toppin — one of the most ready-to-help-now players in the draft — and may have the draft’s biggest steal in No. 25 pick Immanuel Quickley out of Kentucky. It was IQ who sparked the turnaround and win over the Hawks Monday, finishing with 16 points off the bench, playing the entire fourth quarter while showing poise and confidence under pressure most rookies are still searching for. Quickley was +17 in his 18 minutes.
The Knicks have other young players worth watching, and they showed up big in Atlanta. RJ Barrett had 26 points and 11 rebounds. Julius Randle is playing at an All-Star (and maybe All-NBA) level early and finished with 28 points, 17 rebounds, and nine assists. Austin Rivers steadies the backcourt when he is in, Mitchell Robinson is playing strong defense and playing within himself.
Julius Randle & RJ Barrett fill up the box score to lead the @nyknicks! #NewYorkForever @J30_RANDLE: 28 PTS, 17 REB, 9 [email protected]: 26 PTS, 11 REB, 5 AST pic.twitter.com/wi4OdKxexJ
— NBA (@NBA) January 5, 2021
The guy who gets much of the credit for this turnaround is Thibodeau — the coach has the Knicks playing smart, disciplined, well-organized basketball. What New York needed more than anything was culture change — Thibodeau has brought that to the locker room. This team has an identity, a team that will outwork opponents, a team with real grit. A Thibodeau team.
This New York team is building the kind of foundation a star player in their prime might want to join — something the Knicks have not been for years.
This New York team is worth watching and — while they have been a little lucky with opponent shooting percentages, other teams are missing decent looks — can win every time they step on the court.
This New York team might even be a playoff team this year. It’s not out of the question anymore.
2) Kevin Durant out a week due to COVID-19 contact tracing
Kevin Durant is sidelined for the next week due to the NBA’s COVID-19 tracing and protocols — and that could be real trouble for a Brooklyn team that has dropped four of its last five games.
Durant does not have COVID-19, reportedly testing negative three times in recent days. He already had the coronavirus, which makes it highly unlikely (though not impossible) he gets it again, but he can spread it to others still, according to some studies.
From the NBA’s perspective, the COVID-19 guidelines and protocols have to apply to everyone equally, hence Durant’s quarantining. The league cannot have two classes of players: The ones who have had the disease (like Durant) having more freedoms and a quicker return than those who have not — the league can’t incentivize getting COVID-19. That would be morally unacceptable.
No Durant for a few games could hit the Nets hard.
Brooklyn’s offense is 17.3 points per 100 possessions worse when Durant sits this season (although most of those minutes are linked with Kyrie Irving, there’s a lot of noise in that small sample stat). They need that offense because the defense is not bailing them out — in their last five games, the Nets have a defensive rating of 113.2 (points per 100 possessions), 26th in the league. The Nets will need Kyrie Irving, Caris LeVert, and others to step up with Durant and Spencer Dinwiddie (ACL surgery) out.
Next up for the Nets is the Jazz and 76ers.
3) Giannis Antetokounmpo drops 43 spot on Detroit
It took seven games into the season, but the Milwaukee Bucks are over .500 — and Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like his MVP self again.
Antetokounmpo found space to operate Monday night against Detroit and dropped 43 on them.
They have been up and down from three, the Bucks have found their three-point shooting touch lately, hitting 14-of-34 from three (41.2%) against Detroit (just a few days after hitting 22 threes against Chicago). That is the Bucks’ offensive theory — teams can’t stop both a driving Antetokounmpo and the shooters around him.
Antetokounmpo told the Associated Press: “They know that the previous game I’d been finding my teammates for a lot of 3s, finding the shooters. Coming to this game, they probably were like, `Don’t let them pick us apart with our passing.’ That’s why there was a lot of space.”
By the end of the season the Bucks will be one of the top seeds in the East — and that’s not how the success or failure of their season will be judged. It’s all about the playoffs in Milwaukee.