The Memphis Grizzlies take the court once again this evening after a disastrous collapse against the Orlando Magic Saturday night. Memphis is surely hoping that being back at FedExForum will provide some home cooking and energy that will help their weary legs (18 games played since April 2nd) get going. One of those 18 games, a showdown with the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden just less than a month ago, was an overtime loss for the squad that surely added some fatigue. In order for them to return the favor to the Knicks tonight, they’ll need to play better defensively and get more out of their bench.
To help figure out what makes the Knicks tick, I reached out to an old Blogger friend. Chip Murphy is a Knicks Writer for HoopsHabit and a podcaster for Hoops Addicts Anonymous and Knicks State of Mind. He knows the Knicks inside and out, and his expertise is welcome here any time. Follow Chip on Twitter here.
The Knicks, long an NBA punchline (don’t get mad, Academy Award-winning film Soul agrees), are getting the last laugh this season as they are one of the league’s best turnaround stories. How did this happen?
CHIP MURPHY: The simple answer is that they finally have competent people in charge. It starts at the top with Leon Rose and trickles down to Tom Thibodeau and his coaching staff. Say whatever you want about Thibs, but he gets the most out of a roster. This team had a preseason over/under of 21.5 wins. They’re currently at 35 wins and have ranked in the top 5 in defense for most of the season.
But coaching can only take you so far. The Knicks wouldn’t be a playoff team without Julius Randle. It’s not just about how incredible Randle has been on the court. We saw what happened in Minnesota when Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t buy in. It fractured that locker room. The fact that Randle bought into the head coach right away set a tone for everyone else.
Also, it’s hard to be mad when you’re in fourth place and riding a nine-game win streak. The Knicks are ahead of the Celtics, Heat, and Pacers right now. That’s how everyone saw this season going, right?
Julius Randle has been a revelation in New York this season. What about his game has grown so much that he is now the front runner for Most Improved Player?
CM: Julius Randle’s season has to be one of the greatest turnarounds in NBA history. It’s one thing to win the Most Improved Player Award, but Randle is a legitimate candidate to make an All-NBA team this season. Guys don’t usually make this kind of leap in their seventh season.
He’s the only NBA player to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, threes, and free throws. It really speaks to how hard Randle worked during the offseason. His worth ethic is something that’s come up a lot this season. It’s shown up in almost every facet of his game.
He’s improved everywhere on the court, averaging career-highs in everything. The increased workload has only made him stronger. Randle’s been an absolute ironman for the Knicks. He’s only missed one game and he leads the league in minutes per game.
Randle’s defense has been a real improvement both on and off the ball. He’s comfortable taking on the challenge of guarding the other team’s best player. But the addition of the 3-point shot is what put him into another stratosphere. Randle didn’t just dramatically improve his percentage — 27.7% from deep last season to 42.1% this season — but he did it on significantly higher volume (career-high 5.3 per game).
RJ Barrett was the #3 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and looked rough often in his rookie year while Zion Williamson and Ja Morant thrived. This year Barrett has flipped the script and looks much better - where in particular has he improved?
CM: RJ Barrett’s rookie struggles were caused mainly by David Fizdale’s incompetence and a total lack of accountability in the organization. Thibodeau coming to New York has been huge for Barrett. His role is more defined, and his defense has improved dramatically.
One of Barrett’s most impressive traits is his resilience. He started the season in a brutal shooting slump. He actually missed 21 straight threes over a four-game stretch, and it looked like the worries about his shot might be valid. So much for that. Since February 1st, Barrett is shooting 43.9 percent from three-point range, and he’s up to 39 percent overall.
RJ has also improved his decision-making. Like most rookies, he had tunnel vision and consistently missed the open man. This season has been a dramatic improvement. His assists aren’t super high, but you can see that he makes the right play more often than not if you watch the games.
The Knicks are still in need of a Point Guard, and Damian Lillard is the rumored hope of the day. What would you be willing to give up for a superstar like Lillard, or for a steady but less sexy name like Memphis’ Tyus Jones this offseason?
CM: Any real Knicks fan will know not to get too excited about this Damian Lillard rumor. Portland isn’t trading him unless he forces his way out, and Dame is one of the best players in the NBA, so you’d need to give up a lot.
But it’s Damian freekin’ Lillard. So in this hypothetical, you do what you have to do. I would trade Randle or RJ. Not both, but I’d trade one of them. Again, it’s Damian freakin’ Lillard.
As for Tyus Jones, it seemed liked Thibs wasn’t a big fan of his when they were in Minnesota together. So I’m not sure how that would work.
What matchup are you most excited to watch in tonight’s game, and who is going to get the win?
CM: I’m most excited to watch RJ vs. whoever they throw at him — hopefully Dillon Brooks. RJ led the Knicks to an incredible fourth-quarter comeback and OT win in the last matchup, and I feel like Brooks is the kind of guy who’s going to remember that. I wish Jaren Jackson Jr. were closer to 100 percent so we could see him and Randle go at it, but that’s probably not going to happen.
This is going to be a great game. Memphis has to really want this one after the game in New York. But the Knicks really need this win. Their West Coast road trip finishes with the Nuggets, Suns, Clippers, and Lakers. I’m taking the Knicks in what feels almost like a must-win situation.
Thanks again to Chip for helping us out! The Grizzlies take on the Knicks tonight at 8 PM CT in Memphis’ FedExForum.