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Winning In The Margins: Knicks Making Most Of Playoff Challenge Opportunities | TheSportsDay Winning In The Margins: Knicks Making Most Of Playoff Challenge Opportunities | TheSportsDay

Winning in the margins: Knicks making most of playoff challenge opportunities

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Jalen Brunson watched the ball trickle out of bounds Monday night. In the mind of New York’s starting point guard, as 22.1 seconds remained during the Knicks’ opening-game win of the second round against the Pacers, Brunson had dribbled quite obviously off Andrew Nembhard’s left sneaker. So when the officials agreed with Indiana’s bench, all pointing in the direction of the Pacers’ possession, Brunson did what any player in his position is now wont to do: He twirled his finger, imploring New York’s coaches to challenge the call.

The Knicks had already won a challenge earlier in the contest, midway through the third quarter, when Brunson was dinged for whacking Pacers center Myles Turner under the basket. Seated in the second row of New York’s bench, player development assistant Scott King consulted with the iPad in his lap. The tape looked unequivocal. Brunson had picked Turner clean. And with a nod from King, head coach Tom Thibodeau clapped his hands in the shape of a “T,” calling timeout and demanding the referees to review the matter. New York won that first challenge. The foul was overturned, and the Knicks received possession since OG Anunoby immediately corralled the ball following Brunson’s block. The Knicks were then awarded their second challenge, which New York later used to overturn the late call off Nembhard’s foot.NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 06: Jalen Brunson #11 of the New York Knicks drives past Aaron Nesmith #23 and Myles Turner #33 of the Indiana Pacers during the first quarter in Game One of the Eastern Conference Second Round Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 06, 2024 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Officiating was a major storyline for Jalen Brunson and the Knicks in Game 1 of their first-round series with the Pacers. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Another pair of successful challenges only added to the Knicks’ striking edge so far this postseason when it comes to twirling their index fingers in search of greater justice. The Knicks’ two effective reviews in Game 1 versus Indiana came after New York already led the league in total challenges (8) and successful challenges (6) during the first round of the NBA playoffs. For their troubles, the Knicks saved an estimated 7.88 points over six games against Philadelphia. That might seem like a small number over so many matchups. Yet considering the Knicks outlasted the Sixers by a grand total of one point over the course of the series, 650-649, those challenges may have provided an added margin for New York to claw out of that dogfight against Philadelphia. Any small tilt in one direction can swing the playoffs’ unforgiving scale.

The Knicks have been more aggressive utilizing challenges early in games dating back to the midway point of the regular season, this being the first full campaign that NBA teams have been awarded an additional challenge, if their first is proven correct. “In certain situations, we feel there’s an advantage to knowing that you’re 100% certain, that you’re still gonna have one,” Thibodeau said. King, according to Thibodeau, has been researching challenge trends across the league. “And we’ve actually been very successful with it.”

New York’s not alone. According to officiating data obtained by Yahoo Sports, only 9.8% of regular-season challenges across the NBA came in the first quarter of games, whereas 17.2% of challenges during the first round of the playoffs came during the opening 12 minutes of games. For the entire first half, challenges are up a full 10% in the postseason compared to the regular season. The Knicks, for example, would look for opportunities on fouls Joel Embiid drew, even if Philadelphia was to retain possession, just to combat the Sixers center’s guile for getting to the line and prevent Embiid from finding a rhythm during those freebies. If an opponent gets to keep the ball after a challenge reverses a foul in the challenging team’s favor, offenses are often left with minimal time on the shot clock, which can likely lead to a rushed shot and a defensive stop. Teams are trying to eliminate emotion driving the decision to object a particular out of bounds, foul or goaltend.

Oklahoma City has led the charge in signaling for reviews early and often. The Thunder paced the NBA in total challenges (64) during the regular season as well as successful challenges (41), giving OKC a 64.1% success rate. In a four-game sweep of New Orleans in the first round, the Thunder ranked 14th, tied for last, with just two total challenges, but tied for first with 100% accuracy.

“We’re looking for high-leverage situations where we can try and shave points off. Two points in the first quarter is equal to us as two points in the fourth quarter,” Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault said. “And so it’s all about the likelihood of winning the challenge, and then the impact of the play itself. That’s the calculus that we’re trying to get done.”

OKC’s streak of postseason challenge success did come to an end Tuesday. Daigneault protested a call with 4:51 to play in the second quarter of Game 1 against Dallas, as the Thunder were whistled for tripping Kyrie Irving. A correct challenge would have saved defensive stalwart Luguentz Dort from drawing his third foul of the opening half, but Oklahoma City lost the call and an additional opportunity to overturn a whistle.

“Thought maybe an illegal screen and a combination of the third foul — it was really the third foul,” Daigneault said. “If it wasn’t the third foul, we probably wouldn’t have done it. But I thought the value of trying to swing it around was worth it at that point, but you’re not gonna hit 1.000.”

That is the razor’s edge of this battle in the trenches, taking place on video tablets behind NBA team benches. Where possessions are a decreasing commodity, and one crucial call, like the Pacers felt with Myles Turner’s crunchtime moving screen, could leave the door open wide enough for an opponent to sneak through — and win.

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