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SportsColumnistsAl Iannazzone

Knicks’ Jeff Hornacek has more freedom without Phil Jackson

The Knicks have been playing faster, they look more comfortable and they’re off to a better start than anyone could have expected or predicted.

Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek reacts against the Jazz

Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek reacts against the Jazz at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

MORE FREEDOM, LESS TRIANGLE

LeBron James enjoyed his visit to New York this week. He rode the subway, carried the Cavs to victory over the Knicks and took a couple of shots at Phil Jackson. One came while he was giving Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek credit.

“They’re playing some good basketball,” James said. “I think the coach, Jeff Hornacek, is finally . . . with the release of the old fella, he’s finally allowed to implement what he wants to do on the team and it’s showing it’s very effective.”

Translation: when the old fella left, the triangle offense went with him. Everyone knew that was going to be the case, and that Jackson’s departure would allow Hornacek to actually coach the style he wants to coach.

It’s working thus far, although the Knicks couldn’t get anything going offensively in Toronto Friday. The Knicks have been playing faster, they look more comfortable and they’re off to a better start and anyone could have expected or predicted.

“We’re not running the stuff we did last year,” Hornacek said.

A collective “whew” can heard inside the Knicks’ locker room.

Last season was tough for Hornacek because he had to mix his style with the triangle. Then around the All-Star break, Jackson told Hornacek to run just the triangle. It didn’t work. The players weren’t happy, and trust in Hornacek and Jackson waned.

After a loss late last season, Kristaps Porzingis said “from top to bottom” there was “a lot of confusion.” The offense changed midseason and the Knicks didn’t have basic defensive tenets. They changed how they guarded teams game-to-game.

They’re still not a great defensive team. But the Knicks have principles and philosophies that aren’t changing. Offensively, they’re playing freer, and Hornacek is coaching with more freedom since president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry are letting him run what he wants.

“He’s running his own stuff without anybody coming in and telling him what to do or how to do it,” Porzingis said on 98.7 FM ESPN Radio this week. “I think from the top down you can feel that there’s more confidence in what we’re doing.”

It’s also obvious to people outside the organization. A long-time NBA scout and talent evaluator notices a significant change in the Knicks and Hornacek this season.

“There’s a whole different spirit about them than in the Phil Jackson era,” the scout said. “They’ve got some fight to them. There’s better flow to their offense. They’re pushing the ball more and more flow in the halfcourt. They’re much better off than a year ago.

“I thought Jeff, his first year in Phoenix when they won 48 games, he did pretty good. You could see he’s more comfortable this year. He looks like he enjoys coaching this team. It’s pretty clear cut: He’s the head coach and he’s running the team.”

For all his faults as an executive, Jackson drafted two cornerstone players — and both were risky picks: Porzingis at No. 4 three years ago and Frank Ntilikina with the eighth choice this year. Jackson also acquired the rights to Willy Hernangomez. He’s out of the rotation right now, but he showed last year he has a bright future.

Looks like the old fella did some things right.

PAT ON PATRICK

Ex-Knicks coach Pat Riley won five championships as a head coach and two as an executive, but his “biggest disappointment” was he didn’t win a title with and for Patrick Ewing.

“The biggest disappointment in my career was losing the [1994 NBA] championship,” Riley told ESPN’s The Undefeated before Ewing made his Georgetown coaching debut last week. “I let him down. I let him down. I didn’t do enough. I could’ve made a couple of different moves. I could have gotten him better shots.

“To this day, I can’t look him in the eye.”

BOSTON ‘D’ PARTY

Brad Stevens continues to show he’s one of the NBA’s best coaches, and the Celtics are putting the rest of the league on alert that they’re legit title contenders.

They took a 14-game winning streak into Saturday’s game, including a victory Thursday over the Warriors when Boston held that high-powered offense to 88 points.

It got Steph Curry, who said “it’s very, very likely” when asked if he expected to return to Boston for the NBA Finals. “I hear the weather is great here in June.”

James and the Cavaliers will have something to say about that. But the way Boston defends, it’s very, very possible.

Boston’s two best defenders from last season, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, are gone. Yet the Celtics’ 98.04 defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) leads the league. They’re also are tops in field goal percentage defense (42.8) and points allowed (94.1). That’s coaching.

This is a team that lost its top free-agent signing, Gordon Hayward, to a broken ankle on opening night. It’s given long, athletic, young forwards Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum, more room to grow and they’re making plays on both ends. Kyrie Irving, who forced a trade from Cleveland, is playing well while not trying to do too much.

DRAY SAYS LEBRON NEEDS REST

Warriors forward Draymond Green, never one to hold his tongue, gave an honest assessment of the Cavaliers situation in an interview with USA Today. Green said James is playing too many minutes.

This was before James logged 46:08 Friday to lead Cleveland back from 15 down and to an overtime win over the Clippers. After starting 5-7, the Cavaliers have won four straight. But could it be coming at a cost?

James is 32, has played 146 playoff games the last two seasons, and is averaging an NBA-high 38.6 minutes per game

“My concern would be that LeBron is playing so many minutes right now,” Green said. “Yeah, he’s super human but eventually his super human powers go away, so that would be more of my concern if I’m a Cavs fan or somebody with the Cavs or a player.”

Green left out that the Cavaliers need a point guard, and it looks like they need to make another trade to get some new legs and preferably younger ones if they’re going to make a fourth-straight run to the Finals.

Isaiah Thomas will help in both areas when he’s healthy, but he’s still more than a month away, and he will need time to shake off the rust and build chemistry with his teammates.

FAST BREAKS

n The Knicks’ victory over Utah Wednesday was their fifth this season after being down double digits, tying them with Detroit for the league most in the NBA. The Knicks also lost two games they led by at least 21 points — one of them to the Pistons.

n Frank Ntilikina after being asked if when he pushed James did he ever think that LeBron has 60-plus pounds on him: “I’ll make sure tomorrow I will eat more.”

n 76ers center Joel Embiid became the first player to record 46 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and seven blocks in a game in Philadelphia’s win over the Lakers Wednesday. Wilt Chamberlain probably did it, but blocked shots weren’t recorded until 1973-74. On the same night, the Celtics held the Warriors to 88 points in the game, the Rockets dropped 90 on the Suns — in the first half.

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