Tom Thibodeau confident in Knicks’ defense — with stats to back it

The prevailing theory is the Knicks’ defense isn’t the equal of last season’s grit-and-grind juggernaut.

However, the “D’’ isn’t that big a concern to defensive mastermind Tom Thibodeau these past two weeks.

The coach has often cited defensive statistics that make him feel comfortable about the club’s ability to deny penetration and easy buckets because of its rim protection.

Are the Knicks as perfect as last season? Hardly. But that’s not what ills the Knicks in Thibodeau’s estimation.

Thibodeau attributes their 19-21 record to the lax offense as the Knicks hit the season’s mathematical midpoint when they host the Spurs on Monday.

The early-season issues of not flying around on defense or getting back in transition for the most part righted themselves once December hit.

Mitchell Robinson and Quentin Grimes defend a shot by Jaylen Brown.
Mitchell Robinson defends a shot by Jaylen Brown.
NBAE via Getty Images

“I’m more into where we are — are we challenging shots?” Thibodeau said. “Are we keeping the ball out of the paint? And we’ve been top five in points in the paint all year, so it’s something we’ve done well. I think we’re top five in defensive field-goal percentage. Those are the quality markers for me.

“I look at our defense in totality and to me the big number is the defensive field-goal percentage, that’s my biggest marker and we’ve been third, fourth all year long.’’

Indeed, the Knicks currently rank third in points in the paint (41.9) — which is how Thibodeau bases his schemes.

“So much of today’s game is predicated on getting into the paint to spray it out,’’ Thibodeau said. “And so, you keep the ball out of the paint, then your closeouts are a lot shorter. The drives are flatter. And it helps you. Your closeouts, instead of being four or five steps are two steps. That’s a big difference.’’

That said, the Knicks still haven’t denied the 3-point shot.

RJ Barrett defends a three-point shot by Jayson Tatum.
RJ Barrett defends a three-point shot by Jayson Tatum.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

“Finishing our defense probably has been the biggest thing, getting out to cover the line,’’ Thibodeau said. “We’re cutting that down. The defense has pretty much been there. It’s the offense has been inconsistent.’’

The Knicks’ defensive 3-point field-goal percentage was No. 1 last season, as was their overall defensive field-goal percentage. However, their 3-point defense has dropped to 17th in 2021-22 — allowing opponents to shoot 35 percent from beyond the arc.

However, a deeper dive into the analytics shows Knicks opponents were among the highest in missed open 3-point shots last season. Those open looks are falling more this season so it may not be worse closeouts, but worse luck.

“Covering the 3-point line is something we have to continue to work on,’’ Thibodeau said. “Those numbers are coming down. We’re trending the right way.

“We go through the film after every game. After 40 games, if you’re third of fourth in defensive field-goal percentage that’s pretty good. Have we covered the line as well we did last year? No. And so reading the ball, moving on the flight of the ball, firing out, those are things we have to continue to improve upon.’’

Last season, the Knicks were first in opponent scoring average. Now they rank sixth — allowing 105 points. And that’s not too shabby.

PG Kemba Walker (knee) has been listed as questionable for Monday’s game. He hasn’t played since a win at Detroit on Dec. 29 and has missed five straight games.

Evan Fournier (bruised thigh) and C Nerlens Noel (reconditioning) remain questionable. Fournier missed Saturday’s loss in Boston, while Noel has played in just 17 of 40 games this season.