It’s been interesting to play against the Nets the past few years because it’s become a feigned rivalry that has surfaced solely due to proximity despite both teams rarely acknowledging anything about it, nor either being very good. It’s like watching a Bills/Jets game. Both teams are in the same division and the competitiveness is there but at the end of the day, this isn’t Lakers/Knicks friction. That changes potentially if one of these teams gets better but for now, nope.
Last night continued that tradition. Knicks won 110-96 in a game that had flashes of great basketball, but was otherwise forgetful for the casual viewer. But I am not a casual viewer, however, and there were a few silver linings in a victory that started downright befuddling and lackluster for New York. One was Brandon Jennings.
Despite of the ‘Sixth Man of the Year‘ talk that surfaced once he got signed, Jennings has never been a quality offensive player. He’s a volume shooter who has only converted 39 percent of his shots during his career, which is terrible for anyone, let alone a guard. But he’s an underrated facilitater, one who’s capable and more than willing to create opportunities for his teammates. That aspect is often drowned out because of his flair for the dramatic during said facilitation – and other situations – but as the point guard for the Knicks’ second unit, he’s opted for the correct pass over the flashy one and it paid dividends for New York last night.
The Knicks were great running set plays out of bounds and executing coming out of a timeout. The first GIF is a run-of-the-mill play where Jennings drifts to his right and makes a simple pass to Courtney Lee, who’s coming off a Porzingis screen, who finishes easily at the rim. The second GIF is pretty much its doppelgänger but this time, Lee is on the left side of the court receiving a brush-by screen from Ndour, who was trailing the play.
The plays I’m really impressed with from Jennings are the ones he makes when he’s not in ideal spaces, which in the following instances are the baseline. Instead of forcing a shot over a taller Booker, Jennings dribbles back and finds an open Lee who attacks the basket again for a tough finish:
The second GIF is the superior one, though. After a pick and roll from Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah where the latter receives the pass, he quickly dishes it off to Jennings in hopes for an easy layup. But Jennings is out of position, and frankly, almost out of bounds – his right heel barely avoids the baseline – so he literally touch passes the ball to a wide open Anthony at the three-point line. It’s not an accurate pass but it’s delivered quickly enough that Carmelo can step into the shot before Hollis-Jefferson makes a worthy contest.
It’s those plays that make Jennings so crucial right now. He’s avoiding the mistakes and making the plays he’s supposed to make, yes, but he’s also seeing the floor and anticipating opportunities for others before they happen. That vision carried into the second half when Jennings found Anthony open for multiple looks in the third quarter to get the Knicks back into the game, and in the fourth quarter when he built much-needed chemistry with Porzingis and Hermangomez.
In the first GIF below, Jennings receives a pass from Porzingis at the three-point line. But look at his feet prior to catching the ball: they’re shuffling in anticipation because he can already see Hermangomez opening up free in the post. Before the young center can even finish signaling for the pass, Jennings delivers the basketball on him for an easy lay-in.
The second GIF is straightforward pick and roll basketball with KP and Hermangomez both setting screens, but the latter rolls to the rim while the former stays at the three-point line. Manipulating the defense, Jennings comes off the screens with aggression as if he’s looking to score, which freezes Brook Lopez and allows Hermangomez to roll with no resistance. With Joe Harris trailing him, Jennings lays down a perfectly timed left-handed bounce pass and Hermangomez converts the lay-up.
Teammates are realizing that Jennings is looking to get others involved first, and the beneficiary of that is players moving without the ball, to create space for themselves and others. Chances are Hermangomez didn’t see exactly what Jennings did, but given how Jennings had been making the correct passes all night, he anticipated the ball anyway. That’s exactly what Porzingis did below. After Justin Hamilton showed on Jennings, Porzingis got a step and was open at the three point line. But instead of waiting for the pass, he cut to the bucket and Jennings delivered another great bounce pass for the dunk.
Jennings only had 3 points on 1-6 shooting, but with 11 assists in 26 minutes – four more minutes than Knicks starter Derrick Rose – he made an impact that’s going to be more beneficial for New York in the long run, if sustained. If Hornacek can scatter Porzingis’ minutes and allow him to play with the second unit more often alongside Hermangomez, it’ll create more opportunities like the ones above and build the confidence of the young nucleus with Jennings at the helm. Who knows if Jennings shot will ever show up? Based off what we’ve seen from his career, he’ll get going but at what expense? With the way he’s facilitating right now, defenses will begin to sag off in fear of his playmaking, and maybe then he’ll get better chances to score. But right now, in this offense, a pass-first Brandon Jennings is the best Brandon Jennings, and last night was proof.