Towards the end of the first quarter on Monday, Julius Randle, the Knicks’ hefty All-Star forward, pulled up and fired a shot from 25 feet. It was the kind of shot that would have sent him to the bench in a previous era of basketball, or even on a team previously coached by Tom Thibodeau. Monday was Randle’s fourth three-pointer in 12 minutes.
It was also a shot that symbolized the new look of Knicks: this year’s version packs three-pointers. Many of them. In the first quarter alone against the Toronto Raptors on Monday, 13 of the Knicks’ 19 shots — and five from Randle’s — were from behind the three-point line. The approach is a hallmark of the Knicks’ new Bing Bong era, and it’s part of why Thibodeau’s team is off to a 5-2 start, the franchise’s best since the 2012-13 season.
In their second game, the Knicks set a team record for most 3-point field goals in a game with 24, en route to a 121-196 win. This year, the Knicks are taking 40.6 deep shots per game; that’s good for eighth in the NBA and ten more per game than last season, when the Knicks were bottom of the leaderboard on attempts.
“The 3 allows you to quickly overtake ground,” said Thibodeau. Or not. On Monday, the Knicks tried 38, but couldn’t get enough of them and took their second loss of the season, a 113-104 loss to the Raptors.
While the Knicks didn’t try as many 3’s last season, they were accurate in the ones they shot: 39.2 percent overall, good for third place in the NBA. This year they are again close to the top in accuracy, just with more volume. At their current pace, the Knicks are on track to commit a top-five offense for the first time since that 2012-13 team.
The Knicks have also picked up their pace, if only slightly. Last season, the Knicks were dead last in fast-break points. This year they are 22nd.
“I think this is the fastest I’ve seen them play in a long time,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said before Monday’s game.
The early positive results from the Knicks season are the clearest indication that Thibodeau – a coach known for his stubborn adherence to his brand of physical basketball – is able to adapt to the new realities of the modern NBA. He has reinvented the team’s offensive identity with a simple mantra.
“Drift the ball, get your distance, get your rim read – keep the game simple,” Thibodeau told reporters on Monday, adding: “If we do that, we’re really good.”
Still, the transition to a more three-point heavy attack wasn’t just a matter of telling the team to shoot more of them.
Thibodeau received significant help – or, according to some interpretations, his hand forced – through a change of personnel. Last season, Elfrid Payton, the Knicks’ starting point guard, was a non-shooter who often ignored opposing defenses in the perimeter, clogging Randle’s paint and making him more prone to double-teaming. This year, Kemba Walker has taken that spot, coming in Monday night with an almost certainly unsustainable 57.9 percent on three-pointers.
It’s not just about better shooters. Walker and Evan Fournier are superior ballhandlers, and their arrival, along with the improved RJ Barrett, allows the Knicks to break down defenses more easily and create open opportunities on the outside.
Having a healthy Mitchell Robinson in the starting lineup was also a boost. At 6 feet tall, Robinson draws attention to the rim as one of the Knicks’ best alley-oop threats at the basket. That gives the Knicks more room at the edge to create open looks.
If there’s one worrisome sign, it’s on the defensive side, where the Knicks were below average – something highly unusual for a Thibodeau-coached team. While the Knicks have taken a lot of 3s, they’re also giving up a lot — more than all but two of the teams in the NBA
Their new recruits – Walker and Fournier – are not known for their defense. On Monday, the Knicks handed over cans — and points — inside and out to Raptors forward OG Anunoby, who scored 36 points. While Toronto only made 14 of its 42 3-point shots, it was enough to build a double-digit lead in the second half.
Seven games is not a huge sample size. Inevitably, some shooting numbers, like Walker’s, will return to Earth. But the new Knicks, with a sleek, contemporary attack, seem to have the staff to earn their early optimism.