By MIKE VORKUNOV
It was with some degree of desperation that the Knicks turned to Ron Baker over the weekend when all looked bleak. Faced with double-digit deficits heading into the fourth quarters of games in Milwaukee and Indiana, Coach Jeff Hornacek plugged Baker, a third-string point guard, into the lineup and watched the Knicks suddenly come alive.
Over a total of 24 minutes in those games, all in the fourth quarter, Baker had a point differential of plus-30 during his time on the court.
The effect of Baker underscores a fundamental problem for these Knicks, who are 17-20, huddled with seven other teams in the middle of the Eastern Conference. As of Sunday afternoon, they were all within four and a half games of one another for the final five playoff spots.
The Knicks have several notable deficiencies: a minus-3.1 point differential for the season, and a defense that, despite much tinkering, still allows 108.8 points per game.
Only four N.B.A. teams have poorer defensive ratings (based on points per 100 possessions), including the 8-28 Nets, who rank one spot worse at 27th.
But the Knicks’ performance in the second quarter, when most teams start mixing bench players into the lineup, has been especially troubling. The Knicks have been outscored by 9.3 points per 100 possessions in that period — the second-worst mark in the N.B.A., ahead of only the Sacramento Kings. In simpler numbers: The Knicks have been outscored by 2 points per game in the quarter, tying for third-worst in the league.
Baker has played a total of only 10 second-quarter minutes all season, a sign of his low stature on the bench. But after his fourth-quarter efforts in the last two games, he could become an option, at least temporarily, for earlier appearances.
Baker cannot be seen as a panacea, of course. He was a walk-on at Wichita State who went undrafted. His rookie contract does not become guaranteed this season until Tuesday, and his statistics are not impressive. His 10.4 player-efficiency rating is below average. He hit just 36.9 percent of his 3-point attempts during his four-year college career and has hit only four of 20 in the N.B.A.
And his pedigree hardly matches those of the Knicks’ top point guards, Derrick Rose, a former most valuable player, and Brandon Jennings, a former No. 10 draft pick.
But in a difficult spell, Baker may have made a case for himself as a tonic. Even if he fizzles quickly, the Knicks may benefit just by trying something new.
The team certainly seemed to click with Baker over the weekend. The Knicks ended a six-game losing streak in Milwaukee on Friday by erasing a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter, with Baker playing the whole period. He had 6 points, 4 assists and no turnovers, and he drew two critical fouls.
Baker was also on the floor as the Knicks outscored the Pacers by 12 in the fourth quarter to lessen the blow of a 14-point loss. He has come a long way from being the subject of tongue-in-cheek chants at Madison Square Garden calling for him to make a late entry into games.
“When Ron gets in there, he gets it to Carmelo and K. P. and makes the right play,” Hornacek said, referring to Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. “He’s a smart, heady guy. I don’t have to call plays when he has the ball. He’s smart enough to just do that.”
These Knicks are now one game off the pace of last season’s club, which made it to 22-22 in January before losing 11 of the next 12 games, leading to the firing of Derek Fisher as coach.
“We’re not going to let anything seep into this locker room as far as negativity,” Anthony said this week. “I don’t even want to think about last year or the year before, those situations.”
Positive attitudes may well do the Knicks some good, but they need tangible help as well — even the kind born of desperation.
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