The Knicks built their identity last season on the back of their tough defense.
It’s too early to make any declarations about this year’s team, but as its offense has come out hot, its defense has lagged behind through a 5-2 start — with a few possible explanations.
Coach Tom Thibodeau cautioned again Tuesday that seven games is too small a sample size to tell whether the Knicks pushing the pace on offense is affecting their defense, but it bears watching as they head out on a two-game road trip against the Pacers and Bucks.
“It’s probably too early to really tell,” Thibodeau said Tuesday after the Knicks practiced before flying to Indianapolis. “There’s things we have to do better. I think when we get Nerlens [Noel] back, that’ll be a big plus for us. We got guys that are still — basically it’s like having three new starters. So we’re still adjusting there. This is what we have to continue to do. We have to continue to work each and every day.
“You see it in the league all the time, teams that play with an edge usually have an advantage. Oftentimes, it’s teams that have guys that are out, that they play with great intensity. We should understand that better than anyone.”
The Knicks lacked that edge Monday night when they blew a 15-point lead against the Raptors and fell 113-104.
Instead of pinning the loss on the defense as a whole — after the Raptors exploded for 38 points in the third quarter, the most any opponent had scored in a single quarter against them this season — Thibodeau pointed to turnovers and second-chance points as the culprits. Their season-high-tying 17 turnovers gave way to being outscored 21-3 in fast-break points and the Raptors had a 16-8 advantage in second-chance points.
But while those areas explained Monday’s letdown, they may not be representative of the Knicks’ defensive issues in general.
Through seven games, the Knicks’ defensive rating of 109 ranks 20th in the league. Last year, they finished fourth at 107.8. They are holding opponents to 42.5 percent shooting from the field — a number Thibodeau called “strong” and said he looks at more than anything else — after limiting teams to 44 percent shooting last season. Their opposing points off turnovers per game are down slightly (15 to 14) and opponents are shooting 3s at the same clip (33.7 percent).
Perhaps as a byproduct of the Knicks prioritizing a faster-paced offense and getting off more 3-pointers themselves, opponents are getting off more shots per game against them (92.1 compared to 86.2 last season).
“I think we can be better in our transition defense,” Kemba Walker said. “[The Raptors] played hard. They brought it to us. They punched us and we could never get back after they took the lead.”
Walker and Evan Fournier have been offensive upgrades over Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton, who left in free agency, but Payton and especially Bullock were known for their stingy defense on last year’s lockdown unit.
Walker noted that the Knicks are still jelling, with him and Fournier being offseason additions and another starter, Mitchell Robinson, having missed time during the preseason while coming back from foot surgery.
But whether the Knicks settle into a strong defense again with time remains to be seen.
“I thought we’ve had some really good defensive games over the last couple games. Last night, not so much,” Walker said. “But that’s on us. It’s fixable.”