‘Significant’ Knicks change is eye-opening

It’s one preseason game against a projected bottom-feeder, an extremely tiny sample size that should be taken with several grains of salt.

It was just 48 minutes of exhibition basketball. Much more has to be seen before anything can truly be made of it.

Nevertheless, it was easy for Knicks fans to get carried away. Their team defended. They were physical and intense. They challenged passes. They contested at the 3-point line. They defended the rim. New coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive fingerprints were all over the performance, a 90-84 victory Friday night at Detroit in front of no fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been a pretty significant change I would say,” Julius Randle said over Zoom on Saturday, comparing the change defensively to what he saw last year in his first season as a Knick. “Just how we practice, how we go about it from day-to-day process of practice and game speed and all types of stuff.

“We’ve been drilling it nonstop since training camp started, just playing for each other, helping each other.”

Randle and newcomer Nerlens Noel both said their defense is ahead of their offense. For most teams, there is nothing unique about that statement during the preseason or the early part of the season. For the Knicks, who haven’t played consistent defense this century, it seems significant. That’s especially so considering the Knicks have finished in the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency in each of the past five seasons, with offense always seeming to be the priority and defense an optional practice. Friday night, they held the Pistons to 32.5 percent shooting, forced 22 turnovers, blocked six shots and limited Detroit to 10-of-39 shooting from 3-point range.

The Knicks' defense looked completely different Friday night.
The Knicks’ defense looked completely different Friday night.
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“It was a great starting point to build a good foundation,” Noel said. “It was a testament to you practice how you play. I think we’ve had a lot of great preparation.

“Coach is definitely working with us to take defense to a whole other level, just making sure we have that intensity, defensive focus, let everything take care of itself on the other side.”

Thibodeau called timeouts after missed defensive assignments and let the refs have it a few times, proof nothing has changed about his fiery demeanor. When asked about the Knicks’ defense, Thibodeau focused on the team overall, expressing the importance of being good at both ends of the floor. He felt they played 36 or 37 quality minutes. He wants to see that number get higher as the season nears.

“You work on your individual fundamentals first and team concepts second,” he said, noting the importance of protecting the basket yet also being able to shrink the floor and defend the perimeter as key characteristics of being a sound defensive team.

Factor in that the Knicks last played in a game eight months ago, had less than two weeks of training camp with a new coaching staff and different defensive system, and were integrating a number of new players, the performance on the defensive end stood out.

The Knicks do have some strong defensive pieces. Noel and Mitchell Robinson are both adept rim protectors. Frank Ntilikina is a strong defensive guard. RJ Barrett has the length and athleticism to defend at a high level. And now they have a coach who demands excellence at that end of the floor.

“We definitely have made it a focal point in our practices, to have that defensive intensity, from transition defense to talking to preaching high level-communication, and it’s going to be very contagious throughout the season to have that always as a backbone,” Noel said. “We all know you can make and miss shots from night to night. You just got to put your work in on your shots and hope for the best on that. But defense is an effort thing. We’re always going to base our game off of that.”

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