THE BEST AT LOSING
Smith Jr. gives hope, but has work to do Knicks flop into history with franchise-record 17th straight defeat
CAVALIERS 107 KNICKS 104
In the aftermath of the shocking trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas, Dennis Smith Jr. has produced a pair of thrilling, high-scoring games: back-to-back 25 and 31 point outings against Detroit, a top 10 defense. As the only long-term prospect the Knicks acquired in the deal, Smith’s continued development is fundamental to the team’s success. So how’s he doing?
Unlike his time in Dallas, Smith has a chance to run a team, with all the complexities that come along with it. How he handles that responsibility will be key, because in this league, if you’re not an elite scoring guard and you can’t run your team, you slot yourself right into a bench role.
Smith is a scoring guard, a “volume shooter.” He’ll get his shots up, don’t you worry, but they won’t always be great looks. For his career, Smith has exactly one game with 20 points on fewer than 15 FGA. Poor shot selection generally leads to inconsistent play, which is how you go from 31 points one night to 13 points on 4-for-17 shooting the next.
Smith does have a really good ability to beat defenders off the dribble, and is not afraid to get to the rim and finish over defenders. He believes he’s going to make something happen if the ball is in his hands. But he needs to develop a plan.
The best guards in this league set defenses up for what they are going to do. They slow the game down, know how to use screens and both read and manipulate defenses. Smith isn’t there yet. He tends to make up his mind before a play even begins, coming off the pick-and-roll and pulling up or over-penetrating no matter what the defense is doing. He will have to learn how to change speeds to avoid over penetrating and forcing himself into a pass or finish that isn’t there.
That development would be aided greatly with a more consistent jumper. If you watched Smith’s two big scoring games against Detroit, you saw that the key to those nights was simple: He had his jump shot going. Combined with his ability to get to the rim, it makes him a nightmare. When the jumper isn’t falling, there’s nothing to stop a team from deciding to slide under his P&R or keep a big back to encourage him to take that kind of shot.
The next step is finding ways to make sure he’s taking shots in rhythm rather than forcing them up. One priority there will be to make his jumper a consistent motion in all situations. Right now there are some inconsistencies: Pure spot up it’s a little slower, and off the dribble he has a more natural motion. Consistency breeds rhythm, and with rhythm come made buckets. It’s reasonable to think of the Kemba Walker of today vs. the one of his early years.
While Smith’s scoring has been feast or famine, he’s also shown flashes of outstanding passing ability. In transition he definitely looks for his teammates, likes to find DeAndre Jordan or find a shooter on the wing. He’s more inconsistent in the half court, but he has shown an ability to draw the defense in using pick-and-roll and kick to an open shooter. He likes to throw the pocket pass to Jordan in side pickand-roll situations, but has to work on the timing — he sometimes forces it or throws it when he should skip to the weak side. Those are the kind of plays that should excite people about his development long-term. He’s definitely trying to do the right things night in and night out. Those are good, healthy tendencies that he wants to grow on because it will help his game and help him develop.
Defensively is where Smith has the most room to grow. He’s a very inconsistent and non-active weak-side defender. The one thing Smith provides the Knicks and their fans is hope. The Knicks have gone from just plain bad to historically awful. And it’s barely even bothering their fans.
The players, however, are not taking it lightly.
They lost a franchise-worst 17th straight game on Monday night in Cleveland with a 107104 defeat to the Cavaliers, one of the only teams in the league the Knicks actually had a decent chance to beat (Cleveland now has 12 wins on the season to the Knicks’ 10).
But they were trailing from the jump and went into halftime with a 15- point deficit and little effort to show for it. Some unheralded and unknown players stepped up late to make it interesting, with former G-leaguer Kadeem Allen scoring a career-high 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting.
“It’s incredibly hard,” said guard Dennis Smith Jr. “No one wants to lose, especially 17 in a row. Tonight would’ve been major for us if we’d have pulled it out.” The Knicks trailed, 71-54, early in the third quarter. They got within four points several times and back-to-back 3pointers by Luke Kornet cut
The Knicks trailed 71-54 early in the third quarter and got within four points several times. Back-toback 3-pointers by Luke Kornet cut the lead to 105-104 with 51 seconds left.
Kornet missed a wide-open 3pointer with 21 seconds remaining that would have put the Knicks on top. Collin Sexton, who led Cleveland with 20 points, followed with two clutch free throws.
Kevin Knox scored 13 points while DeAndre Jordan notched 12 points and 10 rebounds.
The Knicks almost made an improbable comeback late in the fourth, down by three with the ball in their hands and 15 seconds remaining. But John Jenkins (another G-league callup) missed a corner three and, though Dennis Smith Jr. corralled the offensive rebound, he was unable to connect on a heave with the clock ticking down. Larry Nance tapped the rebound to midcourt as time ran out.
So the tank marched on in record fashion.
Cleveland’s Matthew Dellavedova grabs loose ball as Knicks’ Noah Vonleh defends Monday night in Cleveland. AP