MEMPHIS — It was a rollercoaster and multi-layered opener for the Knicks, who went from down 19 points to overtime to leaving Memphis as the season’s first victim of Ja Morant.
We understand if you instead watched the Yankees — or at least switched back and forth — so here are 10 thoughts to help you digest what might’ve been overlooked about Wednesday’s 115-112 loss.
Yeah, we know the Grizzlies won 56 games and swept the Knicks last season. Yeah, we know they’re among the small group with legitimate aspirations for the NBA Finals. Still, the circumstances were established for an upset. The Grizzlies were shorthanded without Jaren Jackson Jr., Danny Green and Dillon Brooks. Their second best player after Morant — Desmond Bane — was missing everything Wednesday and was injured in the second half. The Grizzlies shot a miserable 39%. The Knicks really just had to rebound a little better, shoot 3s a little better or figure out a way to stop Morant. They couldn’t.
The stat line (15 points, 9 assists) isn’t going to blow anybody away, but Jalen Brunson was very much the stabilizer and facilitator we’ve been promised. His foul trouble early threw the Knicks out of whack and contributed to their big deficit. But Brunson returned for the comeback and set the table with three key plays: assisting Cam Reddish’s game-tying trey in regulation; thwarting Morant’s potential game-winner in regulation by absorbing a charge; hitting Evan Fournier for an open 3-point shot on the final OT possession (that potential tying shot rimmed out).
MITCHELL’S FOULING PROBLEM
You know about this issue if you’ve followed Mitchell Robinson. Especially early in his career, the center struggled to stay on the court because of one whistle after another. We’ve dedicated many words to Robinson’s fouling in The Daily News. Still, the 24-year-old turned a corner last season while averaging about 26 minutes with a career-low 2.7 fouls per game. That growth contributed to his $60 million contract. But Wednesday night became a reversion to the old. He managed just 12 minutes with five fouls, allowing newcomer Isaiah Hartenstein to play the bulk of time at center and close with the starters.
TOO MUCH COMPLAINING
There was an unmistakable undertone of blaming the officiating in the postgame presser and locker room. It was restrained and allusions were harmless, but there was too much of that sentiment last season and it was never productive. NEWSFLASH: the referees are not out to get the Knicks. Thibodeau has a habit of complaining about every call on the court, throwing his hands up in disgust while relaying displeasure in hoarse baritone. We enjoy the passion but the volume of complaints diminishes any legitimate gripes. Thibodeau becomes the coach who cried wolf.
CAM’S BIG RESPONSE
Not going to lie here — we thought Cam Reddish was finished with the Knicks. We thought the pitiful preseason killed his future opportunities. But Reddish got another chance Wednesday and took it by the throat. The 22 points in 28 minutes was, by far, his best showing with the Knicks. For the first time, that trade last season for a first-round pick appeared justified. If Reddish is dancing around defenses, hitting his treys and finishing in transition like Wednesday, he’s the smoothest and most natural scorer on the roster. But these performances need to happen a few more times before we get excited.
PROJECTING GRIMES’ RECOVERY
The reason Reddish entered the rotation was the injury to Quentin Grimes, who has been dealing with foot soreness and suffered a setback after logging 16 minutes in last week’s preseason finale. As we try to predict when Grimes might return, one comment stuck out Wednesday.
“I think I wasn’t really supposed to come back that early but it started feeling really good,” Grimes said about playing in the preseason after sitting out most of training camp. “I practiced two times before that and it was pain-free kind and after the game it kind of flared up again. Now we’re kind of being more cautious with it.”
In other words, there’s no rush. They won’t make the same mistake again.
DERRICK ROSE’S EXTENDED BENCH TIME
We assumed Rose’s limited minutes in the preseason were just about preserving him for the regular season. Thibodeau was never one to hold back one of his favorite players in important games. But Rose only logged 12 minutes in Memphis, even with Grimes out, Brunson in early foul trouble and Immanuel Quickley struggling. With so much occurring in the opener, Rose’s inactivity was an afterthought. Neither he nor Thibodeau were asked about it. But we wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a larger plan to keep Rose’s workload down. Rose, 34, who can list at least seven surgeries on his medical history, was under a minutes restriction at his previous spot in Detroit. A coach there told me that Rose’s production diminished after he hits about 26 minutes.
RJ BARRETT’S OFF NIGHT
It’d be unfair to harp on Barrett’s 3-for-18 shooting performance, which was an assortment of misses from far, mid and at the rim. These nights happen. It’s just a matter of how frequently. More alarming was the difference in speed and athleticism from Morant, the player Barrett guarded Wednesday without much success. Morant has a different level of explosion, the type the Knicks don’t carry on their roster after missing out on Donovan Mitchell. Barrett will never be in that category of athlete but can still hit stardom if the shots fall. That didn’t happen Wednesday.
THUMBS UP (MOSTLY) TO JULIUS RANDLE
The Knicks’ spirited comeback in the third quarter was largely on the shoulders of Randle, who played fast and efficient while scoring 24 points in 35 minutes with a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. We saw Randle turn on a switch after getting taunted by Memphis forward Santi Aldama, who dunked in Randle’s vicinity and screamed to the point of drawing a technical. Randle, for his part, said he ignored Aldama. Maybe. Either way, it was an encouraging opener Randle except for fouling out. He lasted just 24 seconds of OT before picking up the sixth personal on a barreling charge in the paint. It was a careless given the circumstances and may have cost New York the win.
QUICKLEY, TOPPIN NON-FACTORS
There’s been much debate on how these two will find the court given the players ahead of them in the rotation. On Wednesday, their chances were limited and neither took advantage. The streaky Quickley, who started last season on a prolonged cold spell, missed all six of his shots. Toppin went 1-for-3 and the Knicks were outscored by seven points in his 13 minutes. In crunch time, Thibodeau opted for Reddish and Fournier above those two.