Ever since last season’s slide to the draft lottery, the Knicks desperately needed a backcourt stopper.
They needed somebody to stem the barrage of 3-pointers and pick-and-roll dissections that were occurring nightly on Tom Thibodeau’s defense.
For much of this campaign, RJ Barrett drew the assignment of guarding the opposition’s top perimeter threat. It wasn’t a positive formula.
Barrett, despite his size and strength, struggled to keep up with the likes of Ja Morant. There were also concerns the exertion on defense negatively impacted Barrett’s offense, which has been largely inefficient.
But lately the defensive challenges have fallen on Quentin Grimes, who stymied Donovan Mitchell and Trae Young in consecutive victories that injected some life into the Knicks’ holiday season.
“I like making it hard for somebody to score on me,” Grimes said after the Knicks toppled the Hawks on Wednesday, 113-89. “I just look at it as a personal challenge, more of a pride thing. I can take on the challenge of whoever it is.”
Part of it is Grimes finally being healthy after battling an annoying sore foot. The other part is a rotation change that thrusts the Knicks’ two top defensive guards — Grimes and Miles McBride — in more prominent roles.
The pair of 2021 draftees (Grimes went 25th overall, McBride went 36th) prepared for this moment by scrimmaging each other at the direction of assistant coach Darren Erman.
“It was one-on-one last year when we weren’t playing much,” Grimes said. “I would guard (McBride) before a game, after games he would guard me. So that just makes it easier when both come together as one.”
The rotation change — which sent Derrick Rose and Cam Reddish to DNP status — has also come with a style adjustment.
You might recall those preseason declarations from the Knicks and Thibodeau about modernizing the Knicks. They wanted to play fast. They wanted to shoot more 3-pointers. They wanted to light up the scoreboard and catch up with the NBA trend. Rose and Julius Randle dedicated their offseason training to that purpose.
It was a familiar plan from previous seasons, and one that quickly fell by the wayside once games started. But this time, the Knicks have put forth an earnest effort.
And we’ll see if that continues after those wins against the Cavs and Hawks, when the Knicks deployed the old-school Thibs methods of playing slow, playing defense and keeping the score low.
It was a throwback to the style that worked so well for the Knicks during the pandemic season, although two games with this new rotation — no matter how encouraging — isn’t enough for Thibodeau to draw conclusions.
“I don’t think you ever have it all figured out,” he said. “I think each day is different, so hopefully we’re building the right habits. That’s the whole goal, is to improve every day. We’re getting more information on who works well together, how the team functions, and the most important thing is how the team functions. So, that has to be first and foremost for everyone.”
In the wins over the Hawks and Cavs, the Knicks averaged a pace of 96.25 possessions per game, which, projected across the season, would be the slowest in the NBA right now. Over their 25 games thus far, the Knicks rank 13th in the league with 102.7 possessions per game.
So there was a marked difference and, as a result, the Knicks held the Hawks and Cavs to under 90 points each.
These could be just scores of circumstances. The Cavs have the NBA’s slowest pace and the Hawks were missing two of their best players, including guard Dejounte Murray.
But there’s no question this deserves a longer look with Grimes as the perimeter stopper. He’s best suited for the job.
“I think if you guys recall from last year, he showed us how good he was defensively,” Thibodeau said. “And so I think he’ll only get better and better as he gains more knowledge, becomes more familiar with each guy, he studies and he’s just got a knack for it. He’s got a tenacity about him.”