Isaiah Hartenstein, Jericho Sims — Knicks’ unconventional duo — have New York thriving

Everything is sturdy for the New York Knicks these days, even the parts of their rotation they pieced together with Scotch tape.

The Knicks use nine players. Three of them are centers. two of them, Isaiah Hartenstein other Jericho Simsnow play together as part of a stopgap second unit that came into existence after Obi Toppin, the team’s usual backup power forward, went down with a leg injury. And now, somehow, this unconventional duo is pummeling other reserves.

In any other world, this would not work nearly as well. Hartenstein plays the four on offense, but it’s not like he’s a stretch big man at heart. Sims, the quicker of the two, plays the four on defense, but he’s naturally a five. Yet, the Knicks are feasting when those two run together.

“I like it. I think it gives you rebounding. It gives you size,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “It gives you physicality.”

The reality is, Sims and Hartenstein should not make sense offensively. Sims is a rim diver. Hartenstein hits 3-pointers, but teams leave him open in the corners. The Knicks don’t use his facilitating skills the same way the LA Clippers did when he was there last season. The two usually team with Miles McBride, Immanuel Quickley other RJ Barrett, which means the top 3-point shooter in the newly formed second unit is Barrett, who’s at 30 percent from deep so far this season. Defenses live in the paint against them.

But so far, it hasn’t mattered. The Knicks have a long list of positives from their seven-game winning streak. Well, you can add this duo to it.

Both of the big men have made quick decisions on the perimeter when defenders help off them. If Sims is in the corner and his man sinks into the lane, he’ll receive a kick-out pass and go directly into a dribble handoff with whoever is on the wing, which gives the Knicks an advantage: two offensive players in an action with only one defender to guard it.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Knicks have made adjustments, momentum is building and it starts with defense

But that’s not the main reason the Sims-Hartenstein duo is flowing. The defense has been stifling. Playing exclusively with McBride and Quickley helps. Sims has become a difference-maker on that end. And the physicality Thibodeau references is paying off on both ends. With Sims and Hartenstein out there, the Knicks’ best chance to score has been with a missed shot.

“I think me, (Mitchell Robinson) and Sims are probably the best offensive rebounding bigs in the league right now, probably all together,” Hartenstein said. “I think we’ve been doing a good job working off each other. So, I think it’s been good.”

Need an example of that? Just check out the second of two games the Knicks played in Chicago last week, when New York annihilated the bulls on the offensive glass, in part because Sims and Hartenstein could not stop recovering their teammates’ misses.

Those two nine minutes played together during the blowout win over the Bulls. The Knicks shot only 7 of 21 from the floor during that time. They only hit one three. And yet, on those 14 misses, they grabbed seven offensive boards. In just nine minutes.

The Knicks are snagging 40 percent of available offensive boards during the limited time Sims and Hartenstein have played together. It turns the offense from treacherous to acceptable.

There must be some kind of residual effect from Robinson, too. Robinson leads the NBA in offensive rebound rate. Opposing big men don’t get a break, since it’s not like him subbing out allows the other team a few minutes to rest on the defensive glass.

Production like this can’t keep up. A 40 percent offensive rebound rate is the nerd equivalent of dropping 81 points in a game. But right now, anything that can go right for the Knicks is going right.

Here are four more thoughts on the red-hot Knicks:

Dominant starters

When discussing the best lineups in the NBA, the Knicks’ starters must be mentioned.

The numbers are jarring: 17 lineups in the league have played at least 150 minutes this season. New York’s starters (Jalen Brunson, Quentin GrimesBarrett, Julius Randle and Robinson) have the fourth-best point differential per possession. The only lineups that are better belong to the Golden State Warriors, whose starters still eviscerate teams; the Boston Celtics, who are arguably the title favorites; and the Denver Nuggetsanother title contender.

During the seven-game win streak, the lineup’s success has been extreme. Over these seven games, the Knicks’ starters have been the NBA’s best lineup, and New York is riding them. The first unit is a plus-59 since the win over the Cleveland Cavaliers that kick-started this heater, easily the best figure in the league over this time. The starters are outscoring opponents by almost 22 points per 100 possessions.

It’s been pure dominance.

Quick shots

If there is less than one minute to go in the first or third quarter, an inevitability is on the way: a pull-up 3-pointer from Immanuel Quickley.

Quickley isn’t just trying two-for-ones lately, he’s become addicted to them. No matter what, if the Knicks have a chance to steal an extra possession at the end of a period, he will do it.

The Knicks like going for two-for-ones. The target is to get the ball on the rim with about 33 seconds to go in the quarter, which all but guarantees they will get the last shot. Quickley is buying in, but sometimes, it leads to prayers like this one:

The point of a two-for-one is to time the final seconds of a quarter so that your team receives an extra possession. What’s viewed as a bad shot most of the time isn’t bad in this context because it creates another opportunity to score. Think about it like this: two 3-pointers that each has a 20 percent chance of going in is the same amount of expected points as a 40 percent 3-point shooter taking one deep ball.

But it’s one thing to justify an off-balance jumper that could go in every once in a while and another to toss up a Hail Mary shot that might as well be a turnover. And for whatever reason, Quickley has been heaving a bunch of 3s that look like this lately.

Over the Knicks’ last 12 games, he’s tried seven two-for-ones. Five of them have been hasty pull-up 3s. He’s missed all of them. He missed a floater and made a layup. He wasn’t as persistent about this early in the season.

Going for the extra shot often works out well, but Quickley’s jumper has been cold to this point. If he wants to be this diligent about executing two-for-ones, maybe he should adjust the way he goes about them.

walk the line

Last week, Tom Haberstroh tweeted the most niche statistic in NBA history:

If John Goble’s name doesn’t ring a bell, congratulations, you have more of a life than I do. If it does, it might be because you watched him officiate a Knicks game recently: that slog of a match against the Cavs two weeks ago, which just so happened to have an NBA-season-high 13 travels in it — eight for New York and five for Cleveland.

That was the first win of the Knicks’ current winning streak.

It’s official: Goble saved their season.

Can this continue?

At some point, the Knicks will lose a basketball game. But when they do, it doesn’t necessarily mean cold times are coming.

They have a chance to go on a run, so says the schedule. Thirteen of their next 16 games are against teams currently under .500. Ten of those games are at home.

They’re already playing their best ball of the season, and there’s a world where they’re even hotter once the slate gets tough at the end of January.


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(Photo of Hartenstein and Sims: Sam Sharpe / USA Today)

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