When the Orlando Magic visited Madison Square Garden on March 18, they were headed in a downward direction. They were a week away from the trade deadline sell-off that would transform the team. They were clinging to some very thin hopes of making a playoff push.
They knew this was a must-win game to keep the ship from completely sinking.
The New York Knicks were the opposite.
At the time, they were hovering around .500 and their big run to make the playoffs was still a little ways away. But New York had found a way to play and a way to win consistently enough to get back in the playoff race.
Evan Fournier definitely took notice of what the Knicks were doing. Around the time of the game, he remarked the Knicks reminded him a lot of the 2019 team that surprised everyone and made the playoffs.
The Knicks would prove that in the game. With the Magic down one late, Fournier would make the decisive mistake as the Knicks switched their pick and roll coverage and caught him in the air. The Knicks stole Evan Fournier’s pass back to Nikola Vucevic and they were able to run out the clock for a win.
The New York Knicks reminded the Orlando Magic a lot of who they wanted to be. But like the Magic, the Knicks’ poor offense prevented them from advancing further.
Steve Clifford and Tom Thibodeau are cut from the same coaching tree. They teach much of the same things and value the same principles. It was no surprise that if the Knicks bought in, they would experience much of the same success.
The stat profiles between the 2021 Knicks and the 2019 Magic are fairly similar. But so too ultimately were the results.
The Knicks flamed out in the postseason. They could not keep up with the Atlanta Hawks and their high-powered offense. Not to mention their super-focused defense. At the end of the day, the Knicks could not score. Not at high enough levels.
The greatest lesson the Magic learned from their playoff runs in 2019 and 2020, what ultimately undid their 2021 season and what did the Knicks in, was that in the playoffs, a team has to be able to score. Defense alone is not enough to win in this league.
That might be a super obvious conclusion. But it is also clear that defense is the low bar a team needs to make the playoffs. It is still not enough to win in those playoffs.
The Knicks this year were a team very similar to the Magic in 2019.
The 2021 Knicks ended the season fourth in the league in defensive rating (107.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) and 22nd in offensive rating (110.2 points per 100 possessions). They were led by a breakout star in Julius Randle, whose developing 3-pointer allowed him to make his first All-Star team and take the league by storm.
The 2019 Magic followed a similar path.
They ranked eighth in the league in defensive rating (107.6 points allowed per 100 possessions) and 22nd in offensive rating (108.2 points allowed per 100 possessions). A lot of that came from Nikola Vucevic emerging as an All-Star and one of the most consistent scoring centers in the league.
But both teams hit reality in the postseason.
New York Knicks
The Magic and Knicks both lost in the first round and saw their anemic offenses only get worse.
In the Orlando Magic’s five-game series loss to the eventual-champion Toronto Raptors, the Magic managed only 95.8 points per 100 possessions. Even with a decent 111.5 defensive rating (12th in the entire playoffs), the Magic simply could not compete.
They stole Game 1 but were never really in the series the rest of the way. Game 3 was the only other close game in the series and the Raptors pulled away in the fourth quarter for a comfortable win.
Worse still, their one star struggled under the Playoff pressure. Vucevic averaged only 11.2 points per game on a 38.8-percent effective field goal percentage.
The team could not muster much offense with this primary weapon knocked out.
The Knicks experienced the same issue.
In their five-game series loss to the Hawks, the Knicks posted a lowly 102.1 offensive rating. Their defense was not terrible at 109.7 points allowed per 100 possessions. But nowhere near enough to remain competitive.
The Hawks won a close Game 1 and dropped a tight Game 2. But they won the remaining three games fairly easily.
Randle averaged 18.0 points per game but shot an icy 35.6-percent effective field goal percentage, including 27.9-percent from beyond the arc on 6.6 attempts per game.
It was largely a disappointment for Randle. But a necessary learning step for a young player.
What is necessary now is for the Knicks to find the offensive pieces to make the whole system work.
That is what the Magic were never able to find before they hit the reset button on their team. At the end of the day, the point of the game is to score points.
There has to be some premium on offense to succeed at the highest levels.
The Hawks, for instance, ranked ninth in offensive rating (114.3 points per 100 possessions) and 18th in defensive rating (112.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). But when the playoffs came, the Hawks have stepped up to a 110.2 defensive rating even as their offense slipped some.
In the series against the Knicks, the Hawks allowed only 102.1 points per 100 possessions, second in the first round of the playoffs.
Matchups have a lot more to do with things in the playoffs. Offenses can be much more bendable than defenses in exploiting matchups. And especially at the higher levels of the playoffs, teams need players who can score even when the defense is working effectively.
This has always been something of the folly of the Magic’s building plan. They never had great scorers and so they were always working extra hard to manufacture points. Life is a lot easier when Trae Young can pull up from 30 feet or constantly manipulate defenses with his dribbling gravity.
The cream always rises to the top in this league. The best players always find a way to shine on these stages and in these conditions.
The Knicks, like the Magic in 2019 and 2020, are likely trying to think of ways to improve their offense. While Orlando failed to take much (or any) action to add offensive-minded players to the roster, New York is going to have to learn that lesson from the Clifford-led Orlando teams or it could face the same fate.
Nobody wants to hit that dead end.
The Magic hit the dead-end because they simply could not score. So when injuries struck and the team’s defense failed them, the Magic simply had nothing else to turn to.
A strong defense is clearly a good foundation to build on. It can get a team into the playoffs. For a young team, that is an important first step. But offense is ultimately what wins in the league.
The Knicks, like the Magic, cannot go on defense alone. And that will have to be an important realization as Orlando begins to rebuild again.