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Why are the Knicks losing so many close games lately?

Do the Knicks have a fourth-quarter problem?

When you consider their record in games decided by single digits (11-11) — including winning five of their first six such contests and, perhaps more importantly, losing seven of their past 11 — it is worth a closer look.

Overall, the fourth quarter has not been kind to the Knicks. After Wednesday night’s lackluster, late-drama-free 116-105 loss to the Wizards, they are being outscored by 2.4 points per 100 possessions in the final 12 minutes of regulation. That might not seem like much, until you consider they are plus-2.4 overall. Their offensive rating in the fourth quarter is 108.7, meaningfully lower than their number across entire games (114.5).

And during the recent stretch of dropping seven of 11 single-digit games across the past 15 contests overall, the fourth-quarter numbers have plummeted: a net rating of minus-10.5, an offensive rating of 111.7 and a defensive rating of 122.3 (compared to 112.2 on the season). Those numbers rank 26th, 22nd and 25th in the league over that span, respectively.

Fred VanVleet #23 of the Toronto Raptors shoots the ball during the game against the New York Knicks on January 16, 2023 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.
Fred VanVleet’s nine fourth-quarter points helped the Raptors overcome a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter on Monday en route to a 123-121 overtime victory.
NBAE via Getty Images

The Knicks’ field-goal-percentage defense still ranks third in the NBA since Dec. 21: They have held opponents to 44.7 percent shooting. A major problem has cropped up, however: defensive rebounding. Their defensive rebounding percentage during that stretch is 71.1, 19th in the league, and it was a major issue in a loss to the Raptors on Monday, when the Knicks allowed 14 offensive rebounds — including six in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Now, different issues have cropped up in many of these recent losses. Jalen Brunson missed the post-Christmas losses to the Mavericks and Spurs due to a hip injury, and he’s been the Knicks’ closer. RJ Barrett was inactive for three of the setbacks while nursing a finger injury. If one of them had played in the defeat to Dallas on Dec. 27, when the Knicks blew a nine-point lead with 33.2 seconds left in regulation, you have to figure they would have found a way to prevail. Poor free-throw shooting doomed the Knicks in losses to the Raptors on Dec. 21 and to the Bulls two days later.

Then there is Julius Randle, who is having a terrific season. He’s a legitimate All-Star candidate, shooting an equivalent percentage (45.5) and averaging a few ticks more points (24.2) and rebounds (10.7) than he did in his breakout season two years ago. But he has hurt the Knicks in the clutch, which the NBA identifies as the last five minutes of any game in which either team leads by five points or less. Randle is shooting a woeful 27.3 percent, 12.5 percent from 3-point range, 68.6 percent from the free-throw line and averaging two points in 4.4 “clutch” minutes per game.

New York Knicks forward Julius Randle reacts while on the court in the second half at the Madison Square Garden in New York, New York, Monday, January 16, 2023.
Julius Randle has played like an All-Star this season, outside of thise minutes he logs in close games late in the fourth quarter.

It is symbolic of his team. In “clutch” moments, the Knicks have a minus-7.6 net rating, a defensive rating of 120.5 and an offensive rating of 112.9, all below their regular numbers. They were last in assist ratio at 10.2 and 21st in defensive rebounding percentage at 64.6. In the 15-game stretch we are harping on, those numbers are even worse: a net rating of minus-32.1, defensive rating of 132.1 and offensive rating of an even 100.

Some of that can be attributed to games that Barrett and Brunson missed or be dismissed as a relatively small sample size. But not all of it. The Knicks have not been the same team in close games. It is why they own a mediocre 7-8 record since their big eight-game December winning streak.

Not enough looks for Grimes

By 3-point percentage, Quentin Grimes is the Knicks’ second-best long-range shooter. The second-year guard is hitting 37 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc on 5.3 tries per game — only Jalen Brunson, at 39.7 percent, was better — and 45.2 percent overall on field-goal attempts. Bottom line: Good things usually happen when he’s aggressive and the ball is in his hands. But lately, that isn’t happening often.

New York Knicks guard Quentin Grimes #6 puts up a shot as Detroit Pistons guard Alec Burks #5 defends during the second quarter.
Quentin Grimes has been one of the Knicks’ most effective 3-point shooters, though he has not been given many opportunities to illustrate that recently.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

In Monday’s overtime loss to the Raptors, Grimes took just five shots in 40 minutes. Over his past nine games, he has taken double-digit shots just four times despite averaging 34.9 minutes. This is due, in part, to the awareness teams now have of Grimes. They are helping off of him far less, which is spacing the floor and creating better opportunities for the Knicks’ stars, Brunson and Randle. But the Knicks also don’t run plays for Grimes. He gets his shots in the flow of the offense, which, of late, has been isolation-heavy and lacking in ball movement. They are managing just 17.9 assists over the past nine contests, down from 22.3 over the course of the season.

In a game such as Monday’s, when Brunson and Randle shot a combined 18-of-49 and clearly weren’t at their best, it would behoove the Knicks to spread the ball around more. Getting one of their best shooters more than five shots across 40 minutes would have helped. For what it’s worth, the Knicks are 12-5 when Grimes scores in double figures. In other words, when he’s involved in the offense, the Knicks perform better. Far too often of late, that has not been the case.

Pine-ing for more

New York Knicks forward Obi Toppin goes up for a dunk against the Toronto Raptors on January 16, 2023.
Obi Toppin’s offense has all but disappeared in Year 3.
Jason Szenes

The Knicks’ lack of offensive punch from the bench is becoming harder to ignore.

Take away Immanuel Quickley, who is basically their sixth starter, and it is nonexistent. Even with Quickley’s offensive production — he is averaging a career-best 12.5 points per game — their reserves are near the bottom of the league, producing 29.2 points per game, which ranks 27th in the NBA. Over the past 15 games, the Knicks’ bench is last in scoring (18.3), though part of that can be attributed to Quickley starting seven games during that span due to injuries.

One glaring issue is Obi Toppin’s struggles. After taking a step forward last season, he has regressed this season, managing just 6.6 points and shooting a career-worst 40.2 percent from the field. He last scored in double figures way back on Nov. 13. Now, it should be noted Toppin only recently returned after missing 13 games due to a non-displaced fracture in his right fibula. The Knicks need the explosive young forward to find his game. They have become over-reliant on the big three of Brunson, Randle and Barrett to carry them offensively. It has shown in these past two losses when Randle wasn’t at his best.

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