Hitting the Cold Front

After a double-overtime gutwrencher on Wednesday, Knicks fans were greeted with the thrilling news that Tim Hardaway, Jr. would be returning to the lineup Friday in Minnesota. While the third loss in three tries to the Bulls provided a couple of spectacular highlights down the stretch, it again featured how limited this team can be offensively. Michael Beasley had another strong performance (lock this man up!), but with Porzingis stymied, the team’s actions bogged down to late looks in the shot clock and a little too much Jarrett Jack (this play not withstanding). 20 games have passed without New York’s $71 million man, and it’s safe to say they were desperate for another creator.

Unfortunately, his return came against a red-hot Wolves team that had won 6 straight at home and had gone 8 in a row holding opponents below 100 points. The Knicks have actually fared well against Minnesota over the last few years, including sweeping all four of the contests during the Karl Anthony-Towns era, but it’s fair to say that the addition of Jimmy Butler has made this an entirely different team. This group features the NBA’s 4th ranked offense, sits a mere 1/2 game back from San Antonio for the 3rd seed in the Western Conference, and was operating at full strength with both Jeff Teague and Nemanja Bjelica returning from injury. With Thibodeau finally starting to get some production out of his bench and a defense trending upwards towards league average, the Wolves are starting to look like a real powerhouse instead of just a collection of high-upside young players.

Still, the Knicks hung with them through 3 quarters, largely by hitting an unsustainable amount of their jump shots. Kanter got in foul trouble early, but was an efficiency monster, abusing KAT in the post and knocking down some mid-rangers to go along with his usual offensive tap-ins. Porzingis continued his All-Defense campaign, coming away with 3 blocks in the first quarter alone, and Beasley treated his arctic homecoming with his now-nightly panache, going 6-8 for 13 points in 15 minutes. Hardaway came off the bench in this contest and, while looking slightly rusty, still managed to get up 8 triples, canning half of them. Just having a Knick put up threes was a sight for sore eyes and the team finished with 50% shooting on 24 attempts (although some of this could have been situational down the stretch).

Minnesota was right there in the game with them the whole time, though, as the Knicks amazingly went the entire first half without a single free throw attempt. In fact, by the time Kyle O’Quinn was finally hacked to go to the line deep into the third, the Wolves had already taken 12 more attempts for an extra 9 points. Clyde harped on this a lot during the broadcast, as no Knicks team had ever finished a game without at least one trip to the line, but honestly he could have focused on either of their 16 turnovers (some of them truly horrendous, leading to easy fast-break dunks) or their absolute failure to create any chances in transition as contributors to keeping this one tight. (Tim definitely helped the team shooting the ball, but still didn’t look 100% healthy running the break, pulling the ball back out a couple of times when met by a single defender near the rim).

And then the 4th quarter. And, with that 4th quarter, really nothing to say, as Minnesota started on a 16-4 run to totally put this game out of reach with about 7 minutes to play. Towns started to heat up in a big way, hitting pick and pop triples and getting KP off his feet for a nice And-1 jumper. The Knicks had a couple of weird, halting offensive possessions, more than a couple of gruesome turnovers and all of a sudden, this game became more about evaluating the return of Hardaway than putting any kind of realistic hope into chasing an ever-elusive road win. It was certainly a shame to blow such a great shooting performance, and more than a little discouraging as they looked overmatched from a simple conditioning standpoint, but in the end not all that surprising to lose to a superior team by double digits. With a return home on Sunday, and Hardaway hopefully close to returning to the starting lineup, at least there’s something to be happy about moving forward…

Other Notes for this Game:

Joining Hardaway in the near future will be his college backcourt-mate Trey Burke. The Knicks released Ramon Sessions to clear a spot for Burke, who has been obliterating the G-League. While the undersized guard doesn’t have All-Star upside by any means, it’ll be nice to have another scoring threat in the mix after another all-time passive game by Frank Ntilikina.

It might have just been Teague returning from injury, but I thought Tyus Jones badly outplayed him in this game. Jones might be too physically limited to play as an above-average starting guard, but he has the speed to get in the lane for steals, can knock down open threes, and has one of the league’s premier assist-to-turnover ratios. Thibodeau went out of his way to include him with KAT and Wiggins when talking about the young talent on this roster.

And, damn did both of those two former first overall picks kill us. Wiggins has been derided a lot this year after signing a max contract extension, but he was a beast tonight, repeatedly destroying smaller guards in the post whenever Minnesota slowed it down to get a high percentage look. And, while Towns added another double-double to hie league-leading 35, he also finished this one with 9 assists, showcasing some nice wrap-around passes and totally exposing Porzingis’ absolute inability to kick the ball out when double-teamed. Take note, young Uknickorn!

On to the Pelicans!

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