Knicks’ identity is defending physically without fouling, but will results show it?



With the dream of a comeback slipping away Monday evening, Donte DiVincenzo drove into his defender. The Miami Heat had just extended their lead to eight points, and the man puffing his chest into DiVincenzo, Caleb Martin, wanted to keep it that way.

DiVincenzo dribbled left toward the baseline, but Martin sprung in front of him. The New York Knicks guard made contact. Or maybe it was Martin who initiated the impact. Either way, it worked out for the defense.

DiVincenzo picked up the ball and rose for a layup, but Heat center Bam Adebayo flew over to help and swatted the shot out of bounds.

This is how the Heat carry themselves. They will punch first. Of course, the Knicks prefer a boxing match to a track meet.

On the ensuing inbounds pass, with Martin manning DiVincenzo again, the sharpshooter sliced into the lane. Jalen Brunson bounced it to him under the basket as an overzealous Martin pushed DiVincenzo off balance. He finished the and-1 to cut the deficit to five.

The Knicks (44-31) didn’t win the game, falling in Miami 109-99 with their third consecutive loss. They are now tied with the Orlando Magic (44-31) but sit in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. But Monday provided another reminder of a craze that has transformed the NBA since February: The league is as physical as it’s been in years, and the Knicks are the type of team that can excel from basketball’s latest mutation.

At some point, approximately two months ago, referees adjusted how they officiate games. Those touch fouls, the ticky-tack ones that scattered around the league for the past few seasons, aren’t nearly as prevalent. Offense remains at an all-time high, but today, defenders can receive the benefit of the doubt.

“It’s playoff basketball,” DiVincenzo said. “I think it’s just the early glimpse of playoff basketball. Whether they sent out a memo or not, it’s just how the game is being called.”

The NBA has insisted it did not adjudicate a change in officiating just to bring scoring down, but league executives have acknowledged that those dicey fouls, the ones as violent as a feather grazing a strand of arm hair, were called too often during autumn and for most of the winter. Refs made an effort to eliminate those incorrect calls.

Because of that, the product is no longer the same.

“You can’t bait into getting fouls,” DiVincenzo said. “I think over the last couple of years guys have gotten so good in their workouts and everything with drawing fouls and understanding how the game is being played and almost kind of, if you will, playing the system of knowing that certain calls are being called league-wide.”

Scoring around the NBA is down over the past two months, as are free-throw attempts. It’s not just because of officiating. The Athletic’s Seth Partnow detailed the trend in March. Teams are playing at a slower pace now than they did through January. Injuries to free-throw junkies, such as Joel Embiid and Trae Young, have bogged down the numbers, as well.

But whether the rules have changed or not, the way refs are enforcing those rules unquestionably has.

A faint tap on a drive to the hoop is no longer a guaranteed foul, as it was in November. It’s led to complaints from New York head coach Tom Thibodeau, most notably about Brunson not getting as many free throws as the Knicks would like. But Thibodeau also said at the beginning of the season that he believed it became too difficult to guard — and he was far from the only person thinking this way.

A transition to bellicose basketball is what the Knicks want.

“For a defender like I am, I like to be physical, so I enjoy it,” Josh Hart said. “(I’m) battling with it a little bit, just because the change is a little drastic. Just going from pre-All-Star — obviously, it was on the far end of the spectrum, and now it’s kinda on the other far end of the spectrum. So sometimes, it’s tough to try to figure out where they’re calling fouls and those kinds of things. Ideally, I like it. But I just gotta try to find out how exactly they’re calling it.”

Despite the current losing streak, the Knicks appear more comfortable being uncomfortable.

The perimeter defenders, such as Hart and DiVincenzo, zip-line into passing lanes. If they run into someone, so be it. OG Anunoby, if he can get healthy, is imposing in every way. The centers, Isaiah Hartenstein and Mitchell Robinson, bombard innocent bystanders on the glass. Hart may be five inches shorter than whoever he guards, but he will soar into giants for rebounds anyway. Miles “Deuce” McBride blows up screens like he packs grenades in his shoes. Brunson is a basketball player second and a crash test dummy first.

Partnow notes Feb. 1 as the approximate date that NBA scoring began to decrease. Especially for the past month, the Knicks have taken advantage of it.

Since March 1, they are 9-6. Even more relevant, they are second in the NBA in points allowed per possession. Anunoby, the team’s best defender, has played in only three of those 15 games. Robinson, who was running at an all-defensive level before undergoing ankle surgery in December, has run for a total of only 42 minutes over this span.

The Knicks are assaulting teams, but they’re not emerging from tunnels searching for the victims to slap. They smack you legally, which bodes well for a playoff run (again, as long as they can get healthy). Heading into the Heat game, they were allowing the fifth-fewest free throws per field-goal attempt in the NBA.

“You can’t just go out there and whack people,” Thibodeau said. “Those are fouls.”

Instead, defending physically without fouling has become part of the Knicks’ identity.

Thibodeau coaches players to guard with their chests, not their arms. Few mistakes frustrate him more than a superfluous reach. With the big men, he obsesses over verticality. Hartenstein says that whenever he goes up to contest a dunker, hands straight up in the air as his feet leave the floor, he can hear Thibodeau’s voice in his head.

“All I think about is Thibs saying ‘Verticality,’ ” Hartenstein said. “So he’s big on that, playing with verticality, playing with our chest but still being disruptive at the same time.”

Now, it’s a wonder how this affects the Knicks the rest of the way.

If they stay locked up with the Magic, another brutish team, they could lose the tiebreaker. New York is only 1.5 ahead of the Indiana Pacers for sixth, but a strong finish could vault them to third.

Their ease in physical environments could help even more come mid-April. Postseason games are ferocious, which makes roughing an opponent up without fouling even more important.

“It’s an advantage for a lot of us,” Anunoby said. “Usually, we have to play differently because of the rules. But we know we can play the way we were meant to play.”

Of course, the Knicks were meant to play with Anunoby, as well as Julius Randle. Both are recovering from injuries; Anunoby with the elbow and Randle with the shoulder.

Anunoby’s presence boosts the defense to the league’s top tier. Randle adds a vicious cadence on the other side, bullying opponents in the paint, scoring around the rim and overpowering weaker rebounders.

Randle, who dislocated his shoulder on Jan. 27, has not yet played in this modified NBA. But he could thrive in it. He also could never return or come back and not look like the All-NBA version of himself. But even if we don’t know Randle’s status or where New York may finish in the East, what’s clear is that this is a different sport than the one these guys were playing through January. And even if they beg for Brunson free throws a little more often now, the Knicks are enjoying it.

“It’s a fun way to play basketball, being able to defend, being physical without obviously blatant fouls being called,” DiVincenzo said. “It’s so hard to stop guys at this level with their athleticism, with their speed, with their talent to draw fouls. I think it’s just been good.”

(Photo of Josh Hart and Jimmy Butler: Eric Espada / NBAE via Getty Images)





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