Knicks’ Quentin Grimes is NBA’s king of attacking closeouts

Quentin Grimes’ quickness isn’t about his feet. It’s about his eyes.

Line up everyone NBA player for a 100-yard dash, and Grimes probably won’t win. Yet, a theme has emerged during his second pro season: Grimes fields a pass beyond the 3-point arc, a defender rushes to close out on him and Grimes flies by him. And on the next pass, it happens again. And then again. And again.

There is a niche statistic inside Second Spectrum, the basketball geek’s bible, called “blow-by rate.” It tracks the exact quality it sounds like it does: the percentage of time a dribbler blows by his defender when he drives to the hoop. There are 174 NBA players with as many drives to the paint as Grimes has this season, and the Knicks’ 22-year-old up-and-comer owns the best blow-by rate of the bunch.

One hundred and seventy-four players are not a small grouping. Many of them are speedsters. And Grimes darts by his defender more frequently than all of them.

Spot-up threats dominate the stat, and for good reason. Opponents would rather have guys like Trey Murphy or Aaron Nesmith (who join Grimes in the league’s top 10) dribbling than shooting 3s. Defenses scheme to run those types of players off the 3-point arc, closing out hard and worrying about dribble penetration later.

Grimes undoubtedly falls into this category of player. He is draining 42 percent of his 3s on seven attempts a game since Dec. 7. But this trend isn’t recurring just because defenses don’t care if he puts the ball on the floor. This is all part of the plan.

“They know about my shooting now, so I feel that kinda opens up my drive game, (them) closing out really hard,” Grimes said. “(Assistant) coach (Darren Erman) worked with me on that all summer, because he knew that’d kinda be in the system. … I’m really just trying to see where that defender is closing out at, and you can go middle, baseline.”

Next time Grimes receives a pass on the wing, don’t watch the ball or his hands or even his feet. Look at his eyes.

Many young players determine where they want to drive before a defender starts to close out. If the driver is more comfortable going left, he’ll go left. If a pass is to a certain side of his body, maybe they drift in that direction.

Grimes approaches this moment differently.

“I can kinda tell the way people are running so hard at me,” he said. “I can see if they’re coming to my right side, my left side. It’s read and react. Quick decisions. It’s either drive left or drive right.”

And then comes the next reading. If help comes from the paint, he knows he can dump it off Mitchell Robinson. If someone collapses from the perimeter, he understands that he has a teammate open along the 3-point arc.

And that’s why this skill matters. Grimes doesn’t have to be leaving defenders in the dust, but the Knicks are scoring often when he does it.

Grimes has become an ideal secondary shot creator. The Knicks don’t use him to run pick-and-rolls, and he’s not going one-on-one except for emergencies. But he’s become automatic when he attacks these closeouts.

His shots are almost exclusively 3s or layups. He’s hitting a top-notch 74 percent of his looks at the rim. He is racking up an assist a little more than once every five drives, which places him in the NBA’s 97th percentile, according to information tracked by Second Spectrum.

“We knew that he was a playmaker,” Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He played a lot of point (guard) coming up in high school, so he’s comfortable with the ball. I think we’ll see more and more of that as we go forward.”

It all starts with Grimes racing past a frantic defender, something that happens for reasons beyond conventional quickness.

“When you look at quickness, it’s both mental and physical,” Thibodeau said. “So anticipating what’s coming — ‘who’s closing to me?’ How are they closing to me?’ – He doesn’t look like maybe a great athlete, but he is a great athlete. But I think his mind, his quickness to anticipate, to read, that’s what makes him really good.”

Grimes’ play has been one of the positive storylines from the Knicks’ 11-5 hot streak. Here are two more thoughts as the Knicks (21-18) prepare to play at Toronto:

Keeping it high

We’re only a few months removed from Thibodeau suggesting that Robinson is the best offensive rebounder in the NBA. It doesn’t look like such a bold claim now.

Robinson was second in the NBA in offensive rebound rate last season behind only Steven Adams of the Memphis Grizzlies. In 2022-23, he sits in second once again, behind only … you guessed it, Adams.

It’s fair to say that Robinson and Adams have separated themselves as the league’s two best on the offensive glass, even if their styles contrast. Adams plays below the rim, muscling opponents out of the way and using his massive palms to snag boards. Robinson, on the other hand, is relentless. He jumps over people. His arms are long enough to cover all of the paint. He’ll tap a ball five times before eventually snagging it away from an overeager defender.

But there is one habit Robinson could stand to change: Once he catches the ball above his noggin, he has to keep it there.

Too often, Robinson will grab an offensive board and immediately dribble. At times, it’s necessary. Big men will use what’s called a crab dribble — a quick, one-time, two-handed pound into the ground — as they reposition themselves for putbacks. If Robinson is off-kilter, then dribble away.

But for those who may not realize, 7 feet is extremely tall. And Robinson gives up his height advantage when he brings the ball low, like on this play against the Detroit Pistons:

It’s not always a dribble. Sometimes, his hands just drop. He commits it occasionally after catching passes, too, like on this late-game turnover from a recent close win over the Indiana Pacers:

If only Taj Gibson were still around. The fundamentals-obsessed Gibson, now with the Washington Wizardsplayed the previous three seasons alongside Robinson and has never in his life brought the ball below his shoulders after an offensive board (this is probably not hyperbole).

If Robinson can get more comfortable keeping the rock high, he’ll be able to muscle an extra bucket every once in a while and avoid those unnecessary turnovers in the process.

Return of Obi

Obi Toppin has technically returned from the leg fracture that’s kept him sidelined since early December, but he’s not ready to play quite yet.

The Knicks activated Toppin for Wednesday’s win over the San Antonio Spurs, but the 24-year-old didn’t get in the game, as expected. Toppin is still ramping up after missing four weeks. Once he’s back, Thibodeau says he will play.

Which means a change is coming.

Thibodeau flipped to a nine-man rotation 16 games ago. The Knicks are 11-5 since. The coach has repeated that he likes using RJ Barrett with the second unit, a strategy that’s easier to manipulate with nine rotation players instead of 10. Barrett is often the first sub out of the game, then comes back in to play with the reserves.

There is a good chance the Knicks stick with only nine guys, even once Toppin is ready to go. So, whose spot might he take?

It has to be one of the big ones. Toppin is not playing the 3, which makes Jericho Sims the obvious player to make way, given his age and contract. But Isaiah Hartenstein, who signed a 2-year, $16 million deal with the Knicks this past summer, is worth mentioning, too. Hartenstein has struggled with New York using him as more of a rim-diver than the high-post facilitator role he occupied with the LA Clippers last season.

If there is a surprise and Sims maintains his spot in the rotation, it will be fascinating to see how Thibodeau uses him. The Knicks were always comfortable switching Sims onto all types of offensive players, as Thibodeau loves his defensive foot speed. But with Toppin out, Sims has played power forward on defense almost exclusively, which has meant regularly starting possessions on non-centers. And he’s fared well.

Thibodeau has shown increasing confidence in his defense against elite offensive players, too. This possession against the Raptors’ Pascal Siakamwho was in the midst of a career game, encapsulates Sims’ capabilities:

Sims steps up against Siakam for the final possession of the quarter. He thwarts a drive, even if he just barely avoided slipping out of his shoes. He sticks with the All-NBA wing undeterred by a pesky screen from a perennial irritant Fred VanVleet. He stays in front of a man on the way to 52 points. Then, at the last second, he gets his hand caught.

Sims still fouls too much, as he does on Siakam here. He’ll reach but the versatility is there. It’s his plays on the perimeter that should make anyone wonder whether he jives the best with Toppin on the defensive end.

And if that’s the case, might he tempt Thibodeau to drop Hartenstein, the Knicks’ midlevel exception signing? Toppin could be the less threatening of the two bigs as Sims matches up against essentially anyone. With Hartenstein, a down-low paint protector, matchups are more rigid, as are schemes. The Knicks have gone on this run thanks to a revamped, defensive-minded identity. They are swarming.

Of course, playing Sims would lead to many of the spacing issues the second unit has now with Hartenstein and Sims next to each other. There is no perfect solution.

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