Another day, another hurdle for Knicks Interim Head Coach Mike Miller to navigate.
In a season that has required Miller to be the organizational spokesperson for, among other things, his predecessor getting fired, his boss losing his job, his team's brand consultant firing him on live television, his best player getting traded, his fanbase voicing its displeasure, and of course, his owner being one James L. Dolan, the 55-year-old journeyman hasn't broken a sweat. Prime Edwin Moses would be impressed.
Today he has to clear perhaps the most difficult but also the most predictable impediment of all: getting his team to play the last quarter of the season without letting go of the rope.
That's exactly what the Knicks did during their last game, a 126-103 beatdown at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder and possible summer trade target Chris Paul. Miller admitted as much when he said postgame that his team let their offensive woes affect their tenacity on the defensive end, starting as early as the second quarter.
Overall, the Knicks' defense under Miller has improved since he took over for David Fizdale following New York's 4-18 start, and has a respectable 15-26 record to show for it. The problem is that he's trending in the wrong direction.
From December 6 to February 8, the Knicks ranked 17th in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing only 111.0 points per 100 possessions. February 9 saw that streak come to an end with a 140-135 double overtime loss to the Hawks, and they've ranked just 25th over the last month with a defensive rating of 116.1. They haven't held a team under 106 points since the Atlanta game, before which they'd held 8 of 11 opponents under that figure.
How can he prevent the rest of the season from resembling the last month and revert back to the form it took when he first got the job?
"We're an energy team" Miller said before the game, perhaps with a bit of wishful thinking. "We just can't have those lulls. We've talked about how, at times, we've cleaned up some of those areas."
Whether that cleansing shows itself on the floor tonight versus the Pistons or later on in what's left of this season, it better happen sooner than later, at least if Miller wants to remain part of the coaching staff. At this point, no one is under any illusions that Leon Rose isn't going to bring in a new coach as one of his first major decisions as team president, but Miller also has fans within the organization for how he's handled a difficult situation this year.
Of course, whether he returns or not was only further complicated by yesterday's surprising news that the crosstown Nets parted ways with former Knick assistant and CAA client Kenny Atkinson.
Atkinson, as noted by Kevin Arnovitz on Saturday's episode of the Lowe Post Podcast, used to fill the same role for the Knicks that Mike Miller occupied before he became the head man: being the assistant that worked with the players on the court at practice and before games (a post since occupied quite admirably by Kaleb Canales).
Would the organization bringing aboard Atkinson make it more likely that Miller stays on? Or would his chances be better if they hired more of a figurehead like Tom Thibodeau?
Whatever the team decides, Miller will continue to be under the spotlight as this season draws to a close.
At least it's a place he's gotten quite comfortable in.
Notes: Dennis Smith Jr. will miss the Pistons game, as he is still dealing with the aftereffects of a concussion. Miller sounded like Smith Jr. might be ready for Tuesday at Washington.