Knicks’ new-look roster with OG Anunoby has a new-look style in win over Timberwolves
As Jalen Brunson took the court Monday afternoon, his newest teammate approached with a message.
“I don’t really know what I’m doing,” OG Anunoby told him. “So I’m going to keep cutting.”
Anunoby followed through with his promise during his initial game with the New York Knicks — the second part of it, not the first. He ran, cut and sliced. He attacked closeouts and dished to others who scampered into space the same way he did.
This was a new look. And because of the way Anunoby performed, in a state of constant movement, the first part of his comment to Brunson didn’t appear true at all.
You would never have guessed that Anunoby, who the Knicks traded for over the weekend and is yet to practice with the team, didn’t know what he was doing. Instead, he looked like he belonged. And the Knicks were better off for it, downing the best-in-the-west Minnesota Timberwolves 112-106 on Monday afternoon.
“He just naturally just plays hard on both sides of the ball,” Brunson said. “When he sees something, he just attacks it.”
Anunoby finished his Knicks debut with 17 points and six rebounds on 7-of-12 shooting and 3-of-6 3-point shooting. He manned Anthony Edwards for much of the day, staying in front of a young dynamo as well as one could expect and bothering Edwards once he arrived in the paint — though Anunoby did foul out with 4 minutes, 12 seconds left in the game.
The principal reason the Knicks acquired Anunoby — bringing him, Precious Achiuwa and Malachi Flynn in from the Toronto Raptors for RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley and a second-round pick — was his defensive presence. New York wanted a long, physical stopper, and few people in the NBA fit that description better than this specific 6-foot-7 linebacker.
Meanwhile, the Knicks could already score. They have treaded around the top 10 in points per possession all season. But on Monday, their style changed.
These Knicks moved differently. They are without two offensive constants, Barrett and Quickley, whose shot creation became a staple inside the group’s attack. Now, New York must find other ways to score. Against the Wolves, who own the NBA’s stingiest defense, it started with all that cutting.
“(I was) just reading my teammates,” Anunoby said. “Seeing if they pick the ball up or seeing where the help defense is coming from. Reading my man as well. Seeing if he turns his head.”
Until this weekend, head coach Tom Thibodeau and Anunoby had never spoken before, aside from a postgame handshake here or there. They chatted after the trade about getting Anunoby up to speed. Coaches sent the newbie the Knicks’ most important plays. Thibodeau explained to him the team’s terminology.
Anunoby arrived at Madison Square Garden early Monday so he could run through some of the Knicks’ sets. Thibodeau wanted to simplify the game for him.
The coach didn’t want Anunoby to do anything he was not comfortable with, yet. If he doesn’t know an out-of-bounds play, then stand in as the inbounder so he’s not as frenzied. And yet, Anunoby never appeared frantic — and that was true from the jump.
His first basket came on a corner 3, a look Knicks fans better get used to, considering the corners are Anunoby’s happy place. By the second quarter, he was revving.
Midway into the period, he badgered All-Star big man Karl-Anthony Towns, who could not get to the rim and clanked a panicked jumper well short, received an outlet pass from Josh Hart and raced the other way, noticing only the smaller Mike Conley in front of him.
But instead of trying a layup he could have justified, a move that would have been familiar in New York, Anunoby kicked to an open Quentin Grimes who flipped the ball to Brunson who flung it back to Hart who nailed an open 3.
What goes around comes around.
A couple of minutes later, Anunoby slid over from the baseline to receive a dump-off from Donte DiVincenzo for a two-handed slam. Only moments after that, he noticed his defender, Edwards, ball-watching and took off for the hoop.
Once again, the play ended in a dump-off from DiVincenzo and a two-handed jam for Anunoby.
He did all of this while not knowing what he was doing.
It’s why Julius Randle, who went for 39 points and nine rebounds in the win, calls Anunoby the “perfect piece.”
“That’s just who he is as a player. He just makes very solid, sound decisions,” Randle said. “He understands how to play well off of everybody. I think he’s just a high-IQ kind of basketball player. That’s naturally who he is, and it fits right in for us.”
The Knicks, loaded with too many guards and not enough size, were due for a consolidation trade. The one with Toronto balanced the roster. But Barrett’s and Quickley’s emigration has ripple effects.
There isn’t as much one-on-one creation. The bench lineups, which once housed both of the newest Raptors, don’t have as much scoring punch. The Knicks’ backup point guard Monday was the defensively-slanted Miles McBride. Rotations had to be reconfigured.
Thibodeau made Brunson and Anunoby the first two substitutions of each half, an honor that formerly went to Barrett, sitting them early so they could return to run with the second unit. Anunoby becomes the de facto backup power forward, a role that formerly belonged to Hart. Meanwhile, Brunson can now catch fire against backups.
The strategy separates Randle and Brunson so that the Knicks have one of their two best shot-makers in the game at all times. Quickley isn’t around to provide a jolt off the bench anymore. And Barrett isn’t there to slash to the basket.
But others can fill in.
The Knicks have more shooting in their starting lineup now. Anunoby drained three of his four 3-point attempts from the corners Monday. Defenses worry about his long balls more than they concerned themselves with Barrett’s. They are looking for other ways to create shots. For example, Thibodeau says he wants to involve Isaiah Hartenstein more as a cutter and creator. We saw some of that against the Timberwolves with Hartenstein passing from the high post, bouncing dishes to cutters and slicing from the corners to the hoop.
A new-look offense is not just about ping-ponging the basketball around the court more. The player movement vows to match the ball movement — especially once every player knows what he’s doing.
“(Anunoby) plays really hard on both sides of the ball, and he’s — I guess you can say — a perfect fit,” Brunson said. “But I think he’s only going to get better with the more he knows the things that we do and the more he understands our terminology on both sides of the ball and stuff like that.
“He can be very special here.”
(Photo of OG Anunoby: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)
First appeared on theathletic.com