Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) passes the ball during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks in New York, Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019.
(AP Photo/Sarah Stier)

The New York Knicks are built to play from inside out. It’s no surprise that the three-point line continues to be a major weakness.

Danny Small

There’s no shame in losing to the Milwaukee Bucks. The New York Knicks aren’t the first team to fall victim to an onslaught from Giannis Antetokounmpo and they certainly won’t be the last. The 123-102 loss on the Madison Square Garden floor came one night after the Miami Heat gave the Knicks a thrashing in South Beach.

Two losses by 15-plus points is a tough look, even against two of the best in the Eastern Conference. Both losses were due in large part to the Knicks’ inability to close out on shooters. The Miami Heat canned 18 of their 38 attempts on Friday while the Milwaukee Bucks were just slightly worse, converting on 18 in 41 tries on Saturday.

Early on, it was clear that the Knicks were trying to wall off the paint and force Antetokounmpo to pass out of a crowd. Knicks interim head coach Mike Miller stressed his desire to cut off the rim from the No. 1 paint points team in the NBA.

“They average almost 54 points per game in the pain, which is a high number, they had 16 at the half, so our gameplan is to take something away,” Miller said after the loss. “You can’t take everything away from them, so we tried to take the paint and they hit their first six threes of the game, so it gave them a cushion, but we kept coming back.”

Milwaukee’s bigs are deadly shooters. Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez combined to shoot 6-for-11 from deep with each draining two in the first quarter. Taj Gibson and Julius Randle were tasked with trying to stifle the sweet-shooting frontcourt.

“It’s a challenge, honestly, they went 6-for-6 from the three-point line to start the game and that was our gameplan honestly, to make the other guys make shots and they did to start the game and then they cooled off,” Julius Randle told reporters.

As expected, Antetokounmpo had no problem dicing up the defense by making the right reads on his drives. The Greek Freak had an early grasp on how the Knicks were looking to defend him and he had no trouble taking advantage of it.

“I see that, I definitely see that,” Antetokounmpo said of the Knicks’ insistence on taking away the paint. “I don’t think they [were] as consistent with it. Obviously, I think they did a great job with it to begin the game and that’s when we realized we’ve got to roll to the pocket and then find the guys in the corner or the wing because they’re trying to collapse as much as possible.”

On one hand, the Knicks have to be happy with how they are walling off the paint and forcing stars to defer to the other guys on the court. They held Milwaukee to 32 points in the paint, which is more than 20 points below their season average. On the other hand, protecting the paint means nothing if it results in tons of open threes. Perhaps it’s time for something to change.

During his final postgame press conference as head coach of the Knicks, David Fizdale was almost at a loss for words (which is notable in itself). The Knicks had just allowed the Denver Nuggets to knock down 21 of their 39 three-point attempts in a 37-point massacre.

“The three-point line killed us again,” Fizdale said after that loss on Dec. 5. “Until we figure that out, we are going to keep feeling this pain.”

Not much has changed since that game and it’s unlikely that anything drastic is coming. The Knicks were built from the inside out by team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry. The additions of Gibson, Randle, Marcus Morris Sr., and Bobby Portis made it clear that the Knicks were looking to beef up the frontcourt and pound teams in the paint.

That philosophy may have worked 10 years ago, but in 2019, it’s a recipe for disaster. The three-point line has never been more important than it is right now and the Knicks are woefully behind the curve on both ends of the floor.

They’re allowing opponents to shoot 38.8% from three, while only shooting 34.4% from distance themselves. Their best three-point shooter—Morris—will likely be gone by the trade deadline and the rest of the roster is wildly inconsistent from beyond the arc.

Kevin Knox is intriguing as a potential three-point assassin, but he’s riding the NBA rollercoaster in his first two seasons and clearly has a long way to go. Although Frank Ntilikina’s shot always looks pure, he’s only shooting 33.3% on the season and 31.1% in his career. Reggie Bullock is still working his way back from offseason surgery and Wayne Ellington is shooting worse from deep than during any other season of his career.

On the bright side, the Knicks will have plenty of salary cap flexibility in the offseason to bring in shooting and floor spacing. With all that salary cap space during the summer of 2019, the Knicks went heavy on the interior. It was an overcorrection after the 2018-19 team in the bottom third of the league in rebounding. Now, there’s a clear need to add more shooters and defenders who can run guys off the three-point line.

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