The Knicks are getting better. However, their progress, assessed either through the prism of numbers or the eye test, has not moved them much from the bottom rungs of the NBA and they remain widely separated from the top playoff contenders.
The chasm was illuminated in Milwaukee on Tuesday where the Bucks bludgeoned the Knicks in a 128-102 victory. The Bucks are the current favorite to represent the NBA’s Eastern Conference in the Finals in June. Conversely, the Knicks are destined for the draft lottery for the fifth straight year.
The primary reason is evident. The Bucks have arguably the best player in the world in reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo while the Knicks lack a single All-Star. They are hoping 19-year-old R.J. Barrett will evolve into an All-Star caliber player. He ranks third (14.3) on the rookie scoring list this season and fifth in rebounds (5.3) among all first-year players. But neither Barrett nor any of his teammates could combat Antetokounmpo’s prodigious talent as the 25-year-old, who is already in his seventh year in the league, remarkably scored 37 points in only 21 minutes on Tuesday.
“If we get to the point where we are consistently making teams really earn those baskets, that’s when we are at our best. We talk about identity, that’s our identity,” said Miller in an interview on MSG Network following the Knicks’ loss to the Bucks.
The Knicks were without their best player as Marcus Morris missed his fifth straight game with a neck issue. Morris last played on January 5 against the Lakers when he scored 38 points. Guard Frank Ntilikina was out for his second consecutive game with groin soreness and fellow point guard Dennis Smith sat out his 10th game in a row with a strained left oblique. Even if all three played against the Bucks, the outcome likely would have still been a double-digit loss.
The Bucks, who ended the night 36-6, the best record in the league, are simply that good. In contrast, the Knicks, who are 11-30 at the mid-point of the season when they host the Phoenix Suns tonight at Madison Square Garden, are still struggling with what has seemingly been an interminable process of constructing a competitive team.
But compartmentalizing and viewing the Knicks from a macro perspective, they are making small, measurable strides under interim head coach Mike Miller, who thus far has proven to be a capable leader for this team. Since taking over for fired former head coach David Fizdale on December 6, Miller has complied a 7-12 record.
Most significantly, the Knicks have been noticeably more stable and balanced in their effort and execution, which has compensated for them often being collectively overmatched when facing opponents with superior talent. Steady improvement on defense will be critical to whether the Knicks continue to advance as they are conclusively offensively challenged. When last night’s schedule began they were ranked 27th in scoring at 104.8 points per game and 20th in points allowed at 113.2
“I think every night we’ve got opportunities where we can get better,” said Miller. “We’re kind of approaching this that we’re either going to win or we’re going to get better. We’re going to find something in there that makes us better and allows us to move forward and I think you can look at this group and say that they have bought into that and they’re doing that.”