THE BEST AT LOS­ING

Smith Jr. gives hope, but has work to do Knicks flop into his­tory with fran­chise-record 17th straight de­feat

New York Daily News - - SPORTS - BY STEVE JONES JR. BY NEWS SPORTS STAFF

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

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