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As the regular season winds down, the Knicks continually find themselves facing the same pestering scheme, one that is sure to reappear as their postseason chase intensifies and if they make it: the zone defense.
Fans likely noticed opponents, even those that don’t utilize the zone regularly, deploying the defense often against New York lately. The Boston Celtics closed out their narrow victory over the Knicks on Wednesday using the zone. Two nights prior, Brooklyn deployed their zone in spurts. In late March, the Miami Heat dominated with theirs and a completely gutted Milwaukee Bucks roster nearly stole a game from the Knicks running a zone for most of the game.
Teams will normally use zones to give offenses a new look, and find it effective in crowding penetration against non-threatening outside shooting lineups. The Knicks fit that bill when they’re running lineups that feature Elfrid Payton or Obi Toppin in combination with one of their traditional centers, and teams have seized on that.
At least according to the eye test and anecdotal evidence, that is. There are no publicly available team defensive statistics split by man vs. zone, but at times it’s clear New York can struggle with it.
This is mostly due to personnel, as breaking the zone usually comes on the heels of a dynamic penetrator or a multi-faceted big. If the former can break through the top layer and threaten the defense with their finishing, weak-side shooters end up open. However, some Knicks don’t collapse the defense when they drive (Payton), don't drive effectively (Reggie Bullock) or haven’t fleshed out their court vision yet (RJ Barrett).
The second zone-buster is in the mold of a Taj Gibson, a big who can create out of the middle for shooters and cutters without sacrificing spacing and is one power dribble away from a score. Gibson has been effective in this spot, as far as 35-year-old backups go, but New York’s less dynamic centers, Nerlens Noel and Mitchell Robinson, aren’t quite as equipped for this.
Maybe the zone doesn’t become the Achilles’ heel of this Knicks team, but they have ways to adjust for it down the stretch that could make life easier. When facing one, they should turn to their more dynamic perimeter players - Barrett, Derrick Rose, Alec Burks or Immanuel Quickley. Up front, the aforementioned Gibson earned his due next to Julius Randle, however there might be an even better option.
We’ve yet to see head coach Tom Thibodeau experiment with Randle and Toppin in the frontcourt for any serious length of time. With how improved he’s played as of late, Toppin looks like a potential candidate to be New York’s X-factor against this defense. He’s an impressive passer, benefits from playing closer to the rim and can get ahead in transition to attack the defense before it's set.
A Randle-Toppin frontcourt could be the combination that gives the Knicks newfound success against the zone, so long as Toppin continues getting more comfortable on the NBA court. Thibodeau may not want to throw new looks out there this late in a playoff push, for good reason, especially if New York doesn’t find the zone particularly dangerous internally. But this team will need to be prepared for whatever defenses throw at them if they wish to live up to their postseason aspirations.