On Sunday night, the New York Knicks lost the Portland Trail Blazers, 103-99. They have now lost eight games in a row and are 4-18 on the season.
Amazingly, seven of the Knicks' last eight losses have been by seven points or fewer. The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring tells us that the Knicks have now lost 13 (!) straight games where the score was separated by five points or less heading into the final five minutes of play. According to Herring, that's the longest losing streak in "clutch" situations (games where the score is within five points or less points with five or fewer minutes remaining) since 2007, when the Celtics dropped 14 straight close games.
The Knicks stink all the time, but their problems have been magnified in tight situations. According to NBA.com, the Knicks are surrendering 116 points per 100 possessions in "clutch" situations, the third-worst mark in the league and a nine-point jump from their overall number. Meanwhile, they're scoring just 82 points per 100 possessions, the NBA's second lowest mark and a 19 point drop-off from their typical offensive output.
"I don't think it's [mental]," J.R. Smith said after the game, via the New York Times. "I think when it's knuckle-up time, we have to execute better and just keep getting stops. We played well in the fourth quarter. The last minute, they just played better than us and won."
Whenever a team has these sorts of problems, there are a number of reasons as to why. From a thin roster to Derek Fisher coaching like a rookie head coach to Carmelo Anthony not playing like the max-salary player that he is late in games, there have been myriad problems that have led to New York's late game struggles.
Lack of talent
This is the simplest explanation, but also the best one. For all the time we spend talking about coaching and scheme, the team with more talent generally wins games. This is especially true at the end of close games, when things slow down and everyone on the court is tuned in.
The Knicks' shallow roster is magnified here. No team that has guys like Shane Larkin and Quincy Acy playing more than 20 minutes per game is going to be able to call itself a talented one. Even the Knicks' more notable players, like J.R. Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr., are struggling. New York has just two players on its team (Amar'e Stoudemire and Anthony) with PERs over 20. That's just one more than the lowly Philadelphia 76ers.
Of course, the Knicks do have arguably one of the 10 best players in the league, which is supposed to help cover up for the rest of the roster. The problem ...
Carmelo Anthony is struggling late in games
Anthony is far from a perfect player, but there's no arguing that he's one of the best scorers in the league, one with a game and body built for end-of-game situations. You would think a player like Anthony could carry the group to at least a couple of clutch wins.
But that has not been the case this year. In "clutch" situations, Anthony's offensive rating falls from 105.8 to 94.7. His net rating in clutch situations is minus-16.5. All this despite the fact that he's been shooting well at the end of close games (46.4 percent, compared to 45 percent overall). So, what gives?
This is the shot he took Sunday night against the Blazers with the Knicks down 102-99 and 1:04 remaining. The shot was taken with 12 seconds left on the shot clock. Anthony dribbled the ball up himself and no passes were thrown. It's a decent look off a Stoudemire screen, but not the best possession.
But sometimes even Anthony can't get the result he wants when he makes the right play. After a Blazers miss, the Knicks were given one more chance. This time, they ran the triangle. The ball moved around and Anthony eventually received it right at the foul line, where he loves the ball. He took one hard dribble, and when the defense collapsed, he hit Pablo Prigioni, a 46 percent three-point shooter, on the left wing for wide open, game-tying three.
It was the smart basketball play, but the shot clanked off the rim and Portland pulled down the rebound with about 30 seconds left. That wound up being the game. Those two plays were perfect examples of what has haunted the Knicks all season: a mix of bad decision making and bad luck.
Speaking of decisions...
Derek Fisher is coaching like a rookie
This should come as no surprise, as growing pains were to be expected. Fisher has brought in a new defensive scheme along with the triangle offense, both of which the Knicks have struggled with at times. A team not feeling 100 percent comfortable with a new coach's scheme is the sort of thing that would rear its head in close games.
One area where Fisher could do a better job, though, is choosing lineups. Below are some of the ones he's used in the last five minutes of games ("clutch" and not clutch), via NBA.com.
That's eight closing lineups, none of which have played significantly more minutes than any other. There's no consistency. The roster is already short on talent; a way to make up for that could be chemistry, which cannot be built if roles and minutes are constantly changing.
There are also other problems. Fisher often had the defensively challenged Stoudemire guarding LaMarcus Aldridge in the fourth quarter Sunday. Aldridge responded by scoring six of the Blazers' final eight points.
There's always the possibility that things will turn around in a larger sample, but that sample size is getting bigger each game. If the Knicks don't figure out how to address some of these issues soon, they could quickly find themselves competing with the 76ers (and possibly the Pistons) for worst record in the league.