After their offense ran aground in a first-round playoff loss to the Hawks amid a construction site’s worth of bricked jumpers, the Knicks entered the summer with one goal in mind. It wasn’t going big-game hunting for a superstar, as so many New York front offices have tried (and failed) to do in the past, but something more modest: adding more shooting and off-the-dribble playmaking. They opened up the checkbook in free agency, spending a shade under $91 million this summer to import the starting backcourt of the 2020-21 Celtics with the express purpose of ensuring that, the next time they faced a must-score situation, their suite of offensive options would include something beyond Julius Randle going one on five.
Well, it’s only one night, and it probably didn’t shake out exactly the way Tom Thibodeau had drawn it up. But when the Knicks needed buckets against Boston in the extended crunch time of a thrilling 138-134 double-overtime opening-night victory on Wednesday, they did have a Plan B—and a pretty damn good one, at that.
It’s not just that Evan Fournier balled out in his Madison Square Garden premiere, scoring 32 points—tying a career high and establishing a new high-water mark for Knicks debutants—on 13-for-25 shooting to go with six rebounds, four steals, three assists, and a block. (Only one non-Randle Knick scored 32 or more points in a game all of last season; one game into the new campaign, New York’s already matched that.) The 3-pointers will get top billing, and understandably so: Fournier made six in 13 tries, with five coming in the final minute of regulation and overtime, including a calm-as-you-like game-winner out of a Spain pick-and-roll set with 56.0 seconds remaining in double OT.
More interesting, though—and more indicative of the Knicks’ hopes for the season ahead—was the how of Fournier’s big night.
The shooting guard Fournier replaced, Reggie Bullock, was great for the Knicks throughout the 2020-21 regular season, playing excellent perimeter defense while shooting 41 percent from 3-point range on 6.1 attempts per game. What the Hawks exploited in the playoffs, though, was that Bullock’s game is predicated almost entirely on shooting off the catch: He attempted just 10 pull-up 3-pointers over the entire regular season and playoffs, logged only 105 assists in more than 2,100 minutes, and lacked the handle and shake off the bounce to make opponents pay for parking smaller, weaker defenders (hey there, Trae Young) on him in favor of loading up on Randle, RJ Barrett, or Derrick Rose.
Fournier, on the other hand, has enough off-the-dribble creativity and playmaking ability to bust the coverages that broke the Knicks in the postseason. Duck under screens on him—as Boston did repeatedly on Wednesday—and he’s pulling up to fire. Get too frantic in trying to run him off the arc, and he’s putting the ball on the deck to veer past you into the paint. Switch a big man onto him on the perimeter and he’s using his quickness to take the ball to the rim; put a smaller guard on him and the 6-foot-7 Frenchman is looking to use his size advantage to create a good look.
Even with Randle back, Rose re-signed, and Barrett continuing his development, the Knicks needed another ball handler with the size, skill, and confidence to break down an All-Defensive first teamer like Marcus Smart off the dribble; to slither around a colossal shot blocker like Robert Williams III; or to post up a smaller guard like Dennis Schröder, draw help, and fling a cross-court pass right into the shooting pocket of a waiting teammate for a quick-trigger triple. Now, they’ve got one:
Randle will still carry the load; the All-NBA second team selection and newly minted $117 million man came out of the gate strong on Wednesday, with 35 points, eight rebounds, nine assists, and three blocks. But with Fournier scoring or assisting on 20 of New York’s final 29 points, Randle didn’t have to do everything by himself down the stretch—and, encouragingly, that wasn’t all the offensive help he had.
Randle and Obi Toppin shared the court for just 39 minutes during the 2020-21 season, and for only six minutes in the Hawks series—a function of Thibodeau preferring to play a true center for defensive purposes, and of Toppin clearly having a long way to go to establish himself as a dependable and helpful player at the NBA level. But with Nerlens Noel sidelined by a knee injury, Taj Gibson away for the birth of his child, and Boston playing small up front, Thibs gave the Randle-Toppin combo some run … and Obi sprinted with it:
The sophomore scored 14 points in 28 minutes, the bulk of them coming as a result of him sensing an opportunity to hunt early offense against a backtracking Boston defense and hauling ass up the court. The Knicks as a team averaged 8.9 fast-break points per game last season, dead last in the league. Toppin scored four transition buckets by himself on Wednesday.
That injection of instant offense, combined with committed hustle defensively, helped the small-ball frontcourt hold up: New York outscored Boston by 10 points in 16 minutes with Randle and Toppin on the floor. If Toppin’s able to build on this with more contributions in the half court and on the defensive end, continuing the development that began late last season, Thibs could have a hard time keeping him off the court even when he’s got his full complement of centers available.
It wasn’t a perfect relaunch for the new-look Knicks. Kemba Walker’s highly anticipated homecoming got off to a rocky start, with an 0-for-4 mark inside the arc (including two attempts blocked), some struggles shaking Boston defenders off the dribble, and a series of late-game miscues—two turnovers in the final 30 seconds and a defensive brain cramp on a full-team disaster of a last possession—that helped the Celtics force overtime. When Randle told reporters earlier this week that he expected “chaos” when fans returned to MSG on opening night, this probably wasn’t what he had in mind:
MARCUS SMART SENDS IT TO OVERTIME OH MY GOD pic.twitter.com/Bs5O9AHYRF— NBABet (@nbabet) October 21, 2021
With Walker and Rose soaking up the lion’s share of the minutes on the ball, second-year guard Immanuel Quickley saw his opportunities and effectiveness dwindle, logging just eight quiet minutes in a 58-minute affair. Barrett struggled to get on track, going scoreless in the first half before finding his rhythm to finish with 19 points in 47 minutes.
With Barrett guarding Jayson Tatum and Bullock gone, New York struggled to find a second stopper capable of doing anything with Jaylen Brown, who poured in a career-high 46 points against overmatched Knicks perimeter defenders. While Barrett did yeoman’s work trying to make Tatum uncomfortable, Boston might’ve polished off a win in regulation had Tatum not had one of the yikesiest games of his career: 7-for-30 from the floor, including a 5-for-20 mark on shots graded as “open” or “wide open” by NBA.com’s tracking data. And though the Knicks defense thrived last season due in part to owning the league’s top 3-point defense, you’d have to imagine that, on a long enough timeline, allowing 57 long-ball attempts isn’t exactly Thibs’s preferred formula for defensive success.
They got away with it, though, thanks to the part of the blueprint that New York does hope to follow: Randle remaining an All-Star scorer and facilitator, this time with more help, more juice, and more points coming from elsewhere. The Knicks gave up 134 points, got 21 points on 23 shots from their point guards, and won. Variety’s the spice of life; it’s also pretty handy if you’re trying to win a ball game.