If you've been watching the Knicks' crunch-time offense lately, it may surprise you that they currently rank 10th in the league in clutch net rating, outscoring opponents by 8.5 points per 100 possessions in their 70 minutes of play (note: NBA.com defines "clutch" as the score being within five points with five minutes or fewer left to play). On average, they've been outscoring opponents in clutch situations, but their record in close games is just 8-9, a slightly below league-average mark.
Many of these clutch losses have come recently, during the Knicks' past eight games, during which they are 1-7. Five of these last eight games have contained clutch minutes, with New York going 1-4 during those games and getting outscored by 33.4 points per 100 possessions.
Some of their struggles can be attributed to the absence of Tim Hardaway Jr., who was a very productive crunch-time player earlier this season. He boasts a team-best +29 in his 28 clutch minutes, shooting 50% from the field (including 3-of-5 from three) and 9-of-10 from the free throw line. In fact, before Hardaway went down, the Knicks had the best clutch net rating in the league, outscoring opponents by 40.8 points per 100 possessions!
Hardaway provided some ability to push the ball off turnovers and in transition, resulting in easy buckets.
This is how you score easy points in crunch-time, when teams are usually tired and struggle to get back on defense. Also, Hardaway has the athleticism and skill to get to the rim, even without numbers. He can be a one-man fast break:
Even in the half court, Hardaway was able to get into the paint and finish when plays broke down (which happens to the Knicks way too often in crunch-time).
In their last five clutch outings, the Knicks are shooting 17-of-50 from the field (34%) including 3-of-11 from three (27%). To compound their woeful shooting, they are only getting to the line on 18% of field goal attempts, by far the lowest mark in the league during that time.
The primary reason for this is no secret and has been pointed out by anyone who has even casually watched the Knicks these past few weeks: they are relying way too much on isolation plays and heaving contested mid-range jump shots. Not only do those shots rarely go in, they do not beget free throws, either.
It's been frustrating to watch Kristaps Porzingis settle for those types of looks, especially considering his potential, but he's actually managed to stay efficient, going 9-of-18 from the field in crunch-time during this latest stretch, and that includes a missed last-second heave from nearly half court against Detroit.
The main culprits in the Knicks' recent struggles to score down the stretch have been Courtney Lee (1-of-11 from the field) and Jarrett Jack (2-of-7). For example, take this brutal loss to the Bulls. While up three points with just over three minutes left, Lee gets Chicago's rookie forward Lauri Markkanen switched onto him. Instead of trying to beat him off the dribble, he pulls up for a long contested two:
Lee is capable of getting to the basket when he has the right spacing around him, but it's been a struggle to get the right lineup on the floor, especially without Hardaway Jr.
Jarrett Jack has also struggled, partly due to cramped spacing. Even at his peak, Jack wasn't an elite athlete, but now he relies so heavily on craft and strength, he needs all the space he can get. On the play below, Porzingis fails to make contact on his screen, and Lee's man, Josh Richardson, completely abandons him to block Jack's shot.
I understand that isn't technically an isolation play, but that "pick-and-roll" is just going through the motions, stagnation masquerading as motion.
The bottom line is, Knicks fans don't expect or want Lee or Jack to carry the offensive load in crunch-time. That distinction belongs only to Kristaps Porzingis (fine, or Michael Beasley if he's feeling it). Like I mentioned, Porzingis has been efficient in these situations, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. He's also been guilty of using isolations as a crutch.
The benefits of isolation are clear. In an iso, you almost never turn it over, and you can typically get the ball into the hands of your best player. The issue is that you are not putting your best player in the optimal position to succeed. Particularly Porzingis, who ranks in just the 25th percentile in isolation efficiency, scoring 0.75 points per possession in 79 tries.
Getting Hardaway Jr. back will change the dynamics in late game situations no doubt, but until then, coach Jeff Hornacek needs to start drawing up plays that actually get his best players the best looks possible. Relying on the same old hero-ball style just isn't cutting it anymore.