Should Knicks be worried about performing in the clutch during playoffs?

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RJ Barrett Julius Randle Derrick Rose Knicks treated
RJ Barrett Julius Randle Derrick Rose Knicks treated

The New York Knicks are days away from their first NBA Playoffs game since 2013, a momentous occasion for fans weary after years of underwhelming basketball.

Tom Thibodeau’s upstart team, led by Julius Randle, are facing massive tests they’ve yet to undertake, and will have to respond on the biggest stage, under the brightest lights. That’s when you need a team built to close out an intense 48-minute battle.

A recent overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers and many prior narrow defeats posed questions about these Knicks in the clutch, and how much you could rely on them to deliver. As it turns out, about as much as you’d expect.

The Knicks hold a 20-16 record in games within a five-point margin during the last five minutes, good for ninth in the league. Their net rating during those minutes is a +12.5 per 100 possessions, or third best. With three-point margins and three minutes to go, New York went 16-14, 11th in the NBA, with a 9.3 net rating which was ninth.

Outside of the outlier net rating in the former situation, the Knicks perform in the clutch about where they perform on the season. New York finished with the ninth best net rating and were tied for 11th in record with Atlanta.

Digging deeper, the Knicks aren’t an exact replica of themselves in crunch time. Many of their top scorers aren’t as efficient as usual. Randle, for example, is shooting just 38.6 percent from the field in the last five minutes with the game within five points, as opposed to his season mark of 45.6 percent. Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley also struggled with shooting in the low 30’s.

May 2, 2021; Houston, Texas, USA; New York Knicks guard Immanuel Quickley (5) reacts after making a basket during the fourth quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
May 2, 2021; Houston, Texas, USA; New York Knicks guard Immanuel Quickley (5) reacts after making a basket during the fourth quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

This can be due to small sample size math, some fatigue, increased defensive attention among other reasons. Despite this, New York is still converting from deep, with all of its usual shooters topping 40 percent from deep in crunch time sans Quickley. From a top down view, the Knicks are at their usual offensive efficiency as a team in five-point games with five minutes left, but during the 3-point game, three-minute criteria their offense falls to 28th in the league.

If the Knicks offense truly fizzles out in the final moments, how are they keeping pace in the clutch without their standard level of offense? With an even better defense.

In games within five points and under five minutes to play, the Knicks rank first in defensive points per 100 possessions allowed, and second in three-point games in the final three minutes. Their opponents are shooting a staggeringly low 37.5 percent from the field and 30.6 percent from deep in the case of the former.

Quite simply, the Knicks are locking teams up in the final minutes, better than anybody else in the NBA. This helps balance out what the eye test and previous numbers suggested, that while some of the individual one-on-one offense may not look pretty, the Knicks are pulling away in close games thanks to their rugged D.

Should there be some concern with New York’s late-game offense entering the Playoffs? Perhaps. It’s hard to doubt Randle with the ball in his hands this season, and getting too tricky with schemes on that end can lead to turnovers, which are utterly backbreaking at those moments.

The lesson instead should be how fearsome the Knicks are defensively, increasingly so when the games matter most. That’s something to carry into the postseason as not only a badge of honor, but an upper hand when they face their first close contest.