There was a time not long ago when the Houston Rockets were title contenders with an offensive arsenal focused around the three-point line.
But as the Knicks began their six-game road trip in Houston on Sunday night, the Rockets were playing out the string, with James Harden readying for the playoffs with the Nets and Chris Paul leading the Phoenix Suns to their first playoff berth in more than a decade.
And it was the Knicks who came armed with a weapon who might fire almost as soon as he crosses midcourt.
Immanuel Quickley, the 21-year-old rookie, has provided a New York version of the wave of long-range gunners such as Golden State’s Steph Curry and Portland’s Damian Lillard who treat the three-point line as just a starting point.
In fact, at the Knicks’ practice facility, the coaching staff has installed a four-point line, encouraging Quickley to launch from far beyond the three-point line.
"Steph’s always been my favorite player," said Quickley, who shot 3-for-5 from three-point range and scored 13 points in the Knicks' 122-97 victory over the Rockets. "But Dame, just seeing him in live action was another cool event for me. The way those guys can shoot from deep, the way that it opens up the floor, the game is changing.’’
He is following their lead. Lillard is shooting threes from an average distance of 27.63 feet this season and Curry is at 27.36. Quickley has averaged 26.38 feet on his attempts from three-point range and has connected on eight this season from at least 30 feet — including a 31-footer Wednesday against Chicago. Entering Sunday, he had attempted only 25 corner threes this season, the shortest distance from beyond the arc.
"The way it opens the floor, it just creates a lot for your teammates as far as being able to shoot the basketball,’’ Quickley said. "Guys got to close out to you really far. You can put it on the ground and now you’ve got whatever you want on the offensive end. It opens up the floater for me, opens up the lob for the bigs or kick-outs for the guys that are shooting threes. The game’s changing, and I’m just trying to take advantage of it."
RJ Barrett, who has become a much-improved shooter from beyond the arc this season, pointed to Quickley’s confidence — and the confidence that the team has in the rookie.
"I think he’s confident," Barrett said. "He’s confident and he works on his game all the time. Every day he’s in the gym and working. So for him, we’re confident in him shooting those shots. He’s confident and he’s shown that he can make them."
Quickley is averaging 4.8 three-point attempts per game, fourth among rookies who have played at least 20 games. Entering Sunday, he had taken more shots from beyond the arc (279) than inside it (259). He was shooting 38.7% from three-point range overall, but in the last five games, he had bumped that to 50.0% and taken 5.2 per game, never fewer than four in any of the five games.
His floater garnered attention early this season, but teams began to counter that defensively. That led him to find a new weapon, and what he has utilized is a shot that launches from deep beyond the arc.
"I don’t want to put a lid on it. I said to you guys at the start of the season, just watching him shoot," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "I see the way he practices and sort of what’s going on with the league. If he’s comfortable from the three, we actually have a four-point line at our practice facility, and he shoots just as effectively from that area.
"So we want him to read the defense. When he has an opening, sometimes in transition, those are the best looks that he’ll get. Particularly when teams are blitzing him. So we have a lot of confidence in his shooting. That’s his gift."
"I think it’s something that I’ve always worked on," Quickley said. "I try to take my shooting, any time I’m in the gym, very seriously, try to never skip days of reps, trying to get better, especially on my shooting. That’s definitely one thing I work on, even at Kentucky, but I focus on it now just because we have that four-point line.
"I think it opens up driving lanes because people have to close out to me really far, and that just creates opportunities for myself and creates opportunities for teammates."