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Knicks v Mavericks Preview: How Can New York Win

How will the Knicks fare as Luka Doncic and the Mavs arrive at MSG
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Let Frank Ntilikina lock down Luka Doncic

Luka Doncic has been unstoppable to kick off his sophomore season. He ranks fifth in the NBA with 28.3 points per game and has done it on a highly efficient true shooting percentage of 61.6%. Doncic is one of just three players who are averaging over 28.0 points per game on a true percentage of over 61.0%, along with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard.

Few defenders have been able to stifle Doncic, but there is one man who undoubtedly gave the Slovenian sharpshooter some fits. That would be New York’s long-armed defensive stopper, Frank Ntilikina.

When the Knicks defeated the Mavericks in Dallas by a score of 106-102 last Friday, Ntilikina’s defense on Doncic was the driving force behind the upset. When guarded by Ntilikina, Doncic turned the ball over five times – more turnovers than he has had against any other individual defender this season. He scored 11 points on 5/12 shooting, going 0/3 from deep and managing just one made free throw. Blend those numbers together, and Doncic posted a highly inefficient true shooting percentage of 44.2% when guarded by Ntilikina.

The key to stopping Doncic is limiting his inside game. He uses his strength and craftiness to perfection, buying himself plenty of easy looks near the hoop. As a rookie, Doncic shot 44.8% in the 3-10 foot range and 63.7% in the 0-3 foot range, both marks strong.

This year, Doncic has been even more unstoppable underneath. He has hit an incredibly 53.1% of shots in the 3-10 foot range, and an elite 72.3% within three feet.

Hold Doncic to the outside, and you can shut him down. Only a 32.6% career three point shooter, Doncic has yet to prove he can beat opponents from the outside with consistency.

Less than a week ago, Ntilikina looked like Doncic’s kryptonite. New York needs to make sure Ntilikina is assigned to Doncic the entirety of the time they share the floor. If the Frenchman is as dominant defensively as he was in Dallas, the Knicks might be able to complete the season sweep.

Attack off the pick-and-roll

Dallas has struggled defensively, ranking 21st in defensive rating (110.5).

One of the Mavs’ biggest weaknesses on that end of the court has been guarding the pick-and-roll. They have allowed 1.29 points per possession to roll men, fourth-worst in the league. Roll men have registered an astoundingly high eFG% of 67.2% against Dallas, third-highest in the NBA.

On the other hand, the pick-and-roll game has been an area of concern for New York’s offense. The lack of pick-and-roll usage by the Knicks has been one of the primary knocks on David Fizdale. Despite ranking a solid 11th in points per possession on roll man plays (1.11), the Knicks have used the play at the sixth-lowest frequency (5.6% of the time).

Instead, the Knicks offense has been heavily built around isolation and post-up plays, despite having a roster that is not suited to that style. The results have been disastrous. New York ranks fourth in post-up frequency (7.1%), but are 24th in points per possession (0.73). They are 10th in isolation frequency (7.4%), and 30th points per possession (0.67).

Fizdale needs to get the Knicks, who are dead-last in offensive rating (100.1), to start playing to their strengths on the offensive end. It is simply awful coaching to have a team run far too much of what it is not good at and far too little of what it is good at. The Mavericks present a golden opportunity to start emphasizing the pick-and-roll game. Can the Knicks take advantage?

Protect the basketball

The Knicks had a five-game stretch where they were protecting the basketball very well. They averaged just 12.4 turnovers per game from October 30th to November 8th, a huge improvement after they gave the ball away 20.0 times a night over their first four contests.

Recently, the Knicks have been struggling with turnovers again. They have averaged 19.5 of them over their most recent two losses, in which they lost by an average 19.5 points.

One of Dallas’ many defensive weaknesses has been their inability to take the ball away. The Mavs rank 28th in opponent turnover rate, at just 11.7%. They are forcing 13.3 turnovers per game.

When the Knicks took down the Mavericks in Dallas, great ball security was a key factor. Fizdale’s squad turned the ball over just 12 times, posting a season-low turnover rate of 10.5%.

Hit free throws at a high rate

Free throw shooting has been absolutely killing the Knicks. They have done a great job getting to the line, ranking third in free throw attempts per game (26.5), but they rank only 16th in made free throws per game (17.3).

That is the disparity that will occur when a team shoots a league-worst 65.1% at the line. The Knicks have shot 4.3% worse at the stripe than the 29th-ranked Hawks (69.4%), the largest separation between any two teams on the free throw percentage leaderboard.

R.J. Barrett has been the primary culprit. He leads the Knicks with 6.1 free throw attempts per game, but has connected on just 44.8% of those. If he hit free throws at the league-average mark of 76%, he would be scoring about 1.9 more points per game at his current free throw attempt frequency.

New York’s prized rookie has been absolutely phenomenal. He is already the team’s best player, and it is not even debatable. At just 19 years old, his potential is undeniable. Once he conquers the free throw line, his potential will soar even higher.


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