NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 01: Frank Ntilikina #11 of the New York Knicks drives the ball up court during the second half of their game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Madison Square Garden on January 01, 2020 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
(Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

The New York Knicks are using defense to fuel the offense with Frank Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson leading the charge.

Danny Small

The rule of three states that things that come in a trio are more satisfying. That is factual when it comes to the New York Knicks (10-24). The Knickerbockers are on a three-game winning streak for the first time since November of 2018 after smacking the Portland Trail Blazers by the score of 117-93. The team’s success begins on defense and is ultimately translating into easier looks on offense.

The Knicks allowed Carmelo Anthony safe passage in Madison Square Garden. The former Knick legend received a warm welcome from the Madison Square Garden crowd en route to 26 points—a season-high—on 11-for-15 shooting.

But the rest of the Blazers died of dysentery during the first leg of a five-game road trip. Although Portland (14-21) is scuffling in a big way, it’s only fair to give credit where credit is due—the Knicks are playing phenomenal defense right now.

After simplifying things under interim head coach Mike Miller, New York is starting to impose its will on opposing teams. The point guard combination of Elfrid Payton and Frank Ntilikina is locking down the point of attack and setting the tone for the entire team.

“I think it’s starting with our point guards. I think Elfrid Payton and Frank [Ntilikina] did an outstanding job early,” Miller said after his team held Portland to 93 total points. “That’s a tough assignment, you’re not going to shut [Damian] Lillard down, but you have to make it difficult and stay with it.”

Stay with it, they did. Lillard may have finished two assists shy of a triple-double, but he had almost no offensive rhythm under the bright lights of MSG. CJ McCollum, on the other hand, had spurts of offense here and there. Together, the backcourt pairing scored 28 points on 11-for-36 from the floor. Lillard’s performance starkly contrasts with an earlier meeting against the Knicks in which he poured in 31 points, including eight three-pointers.

“Defense leads to offense” is more than a tired and old cliché. OK, maybe it’s a cliché, but it’s 100% accurate. Teams are far more efficient offensively after securing a stop on the defensive end. Over the course of the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, teams scored 1.12 points per chance on steals, 0.98 on defensive rebounds, 0.94 after opposing free throw attempts/made field goals, and 0.93 off of dead balls per Seth Partnow of The Athletic.

Numbers aside, the Knicks feel like defense is translating into offense and the confidence in the locker room is palpable.

“I think when we are getting stops it makes things a lot easier, and we can get in transition and then we can kick our or whatever it is. Everybody is in the right spot and making the right plays,” Julius Randle said after posting yet another double-double.

Reggie Bullock, following his first game of the season after undergoing offseason surgery, echoed Randle’s sentiments.

“I think that it started on the defensive end,” Bullock told reporters. “We were committed on the defensive end and I think it led out to open shots, transition, and you start to get into a groove. Frank coming off the bench and forcing it on the defensive end with the second unit, it was a groove for us.”

Everyone had plenty to say about Ntilikina’s defensive prowess, but his nine points and 10 assists represent a step in the right direction for the young guard offensively.

Ntilikina’s offensive improvements are about more than just knocking down pull-up threes. It’s about his ability to run the pick-and-roll effectively in the halfcourt.

His pick-and-roll partner? None other than Mitchell Robinson, who just so happens to be longer than a line at the DMV. If the ball is thrown anywhere near the vicinity of the rim, the 7-footer is going to make sure he ends up on SportsCenter.

“He’s playing with so much energy,” Miller said of Ntilikina. “Mitchell had an incredible game and Frank set him up for a lot of those. He is really seeing things open up and he is really finding guys and putting guys in great position to make plays.”

Robinson tied his career-high with 22 points and even more impressive, the second-year center was perfect on 11 field goal attempts. Given the fact that most of his shots are dunks, his perfect shooting night looks less impressive. Then again, Robinson seems to defy the laws of gravity on some of his throwdowns.

 

That’s about all there is to say about the Knicks right now. The offense is fueled by stifling defense and the wins are starting to pile up. In a season with plenty of low points, Wednesday marked the definitive high point of the season. As Knicks fans know, things can turn on a dime in a New York minute. But for now, the Knicks deserve a moment to enjoy this three-game winning streak.

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