Coach Speak: Sam Mitchell breaks down Knicks

NBA TV's Sam Mitchell digs into how New York's defense and the play of Julius Randle and RJ Barrett have sparked its success in 2020-21.

Video Transcript

SAM MITCHELL: We got to get court balance. So when we shoot the ball, we got to have two, three guys back.

1-4 flat. Hey, Donyell, flat!

Keep working on our stuff, all right? You're trying to play perfect basketball. That's all you're thinking about.


For the first time in a long time, there's some positivity surrounding the New York Knicks. Former Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau was hired to bring stability and accountability while developing the Knicks' young talent. The fact that they have gone from mediocrity to respectability this fast has defied the predictions of another lost Knicks season.

Defense has always been a Thibs trademark. And his principles have taken hold with the Knicks, not with elite shot blocking or forcing a lot of turnovers, but great hustle and connection on the defensive end by icing pick and rolls with their bigs, protecting the paint, and rotating out to contest 3-point shots.

Watch the Knicks on defense. As Dragic attempts to run a high screen and roll, Nerlens Noel comes up into a hard show position. He stops the dribble penetration by Dragic. Reggie Bullock is on the back end of the defense, covering for Noel.

As Noel retreats, watch Bullock chases Jimmy Butler off the 3-point line, stays connected to him off the dribble, and contests the wide open 3. Bam deflecting the ball out. Here's Duncan Robinson, attempting which he thought was a wide open 3, but RJ Barrett contests the 3.

Here's another example of the Knicks high screen and roll defense. Nerlens Noel comes up against Trae Young in the soft show position. At that point, Julius Randle now recovers to Gallinari, takes away dribble penetration. Effort paid hustle to take away a wide open 3-point attempt from Trae Young.

Here's the Knicks again, high screen and roll defense. As Jimmy Butler runs a high screen and roll with Precious Achiuwa. Watch the Knicks defense. Even though the Knicks do give up the pocket pass, look at the Knicks hustle.

Nerlens Noel retreats back, and Toppin comes over. And they both contest a wide open Precious Achiuwa, which leads to a fast break opportunity for the Knicks.

Julius Randle was considered somewhat of a consolation prize when the Knicks failed to attract a big-name free agent in the summer of 2019. But Randle has exceeded expectations by scoring and playmaking at an All-Star level.

When you talk about the Knicks, you have to talk about All-Star forward Julius Randle. Watch him on this UCLA cut to establish low post position against the Washington defender Hachimura. Watch Julius Randle use old school basketball, crab dribble to get his position, and set the defender up for an easy turnaround, fadeaway jump shot.

Here's Randle again to show you more versatility from the big man. Standing at the 3-point line, watch him square up Precious Achiuwa, who's a good defender. He takes him off a live dribble with a hard drive to his strong hand, left-handed, and drops him off at the basket.

Here's Julius Randle again and his versatility. As Julius Randle at the 3-point line, Ben Simmons, who could very well be the Defensive Player of the Year-- watch Julius Randle sizing him up, crosses him over, and spins back to his left hand for an easy layup.

Here's Randle again, doing what All-Star forwards do. At the 3-point line, he attacks the guts of the Miami Heat defense, drawing two defenders. RJ Barrett, seeing that, makes a basket cut for an easy layup against the Miami Heat.

The other cornerstone for the New York Knicks is RJ Barrett. And after experiencing some growing pains during a COVID-shortened rookie year, he's made a significant leap this season, particularly in his ball handling and finishing at the rim.

If Julius Randle is Batman, RJ Barrett is quickly becoming his Robin. Watch RJ Barrett right here uses a Julius Randle screen to get a favorable match-up against Khris Middleton. Watch the hesitation move that he puts on Khris Middleton. As he blows by Middleton with that favorite move, he gets into the paint and throws it down against the Bucks defense.

When you talk about the Knicks again, watch RJ Barrett. Here's Barrett in a secondary break against a set defense of the Miami Heat. Look at how smart this young man is. He sees all the help is to the middle. He baits Tyler Herro, reverse spin dribble to the baseline for an easy dunk against a set Miami defense.

Watch RJ Barrett on defense. As he gets a great steal against Ben Simmons, watch. Coaches don't teach this, one against three in the open court. But he is so talented that he can take the ball full length of the floor and finish it for a strong layup against the Philadelphia 76ers.

While this team is still far from title contention, a long-awaited playoff berth is a realistic ambition for the Knicks this season. And going forward, there's a genuine optimism that this latest rebuild will be sustainable for one of the league's foundational franchises.