David Fizdale ticked off the names one after another, listing the players who were out of action Wednesday night for the Knicks. There was Dennis Smith Jr., still sidelined with no return in sight from a back injury. Frank Ntilikina was still at least a few more days away from playing for the first time in nearly two months. Allonzo Trier came up lame with a calf strain and even Kadeem Allen was sick and sent home.
That left 10 active players, which as you might expect were not enough to keep up with the Jazz and might not have been enough talent even if you let all 10 play at once. The Knicks trailed by as many as 37 points — which on the plus side was less of a deficit than they faced in the last game — as they fell to Utah, 137-116, at Madison Square Garden.
More than just missing the full complement of players to try to squeeze a win out of a season already gone south, it was another night wasted for what Fizdale and the Knicks really want right now — to see some growth from the young players who will be back on the roster. The common denominator among the four guards out of action is that they all could be back next season — something you can’t say for most of the roster.
When the Knicks made the trade that brought Smith to New York, Fizdale talked about seeing him play together with Ntilikina, who was taken one spot ahead of him in the lottery two years ago. While Donovan Mitchell, who had 30 points in three quarters, being on hand served as a reminder of the player that was passed on while both Smith and Ntilikina were selected.
“[Mitchell] is a nightmare to guard,” Fizdale said. “The guy can get anywhere on the floor. He’s so strong. He’s fast. he can shoot the three. He finishes through contact. He’s a big-time player.”
Still, the focus for the Knicks was getting something out of the players they have.
“I think we’ve got a good body of work in already,” Fizdale said before the game. “I just feel bad for the guys because it knocks them out of rhythm. I know they wanted to finish, to power through the end of the season. Little nagging injuries often grab you, especially at this time of the year.
“But I think we know a lot about our guys right now. My biggest thing is I was hoping that in these next 11 we could get another look and maybe they could take another little jump in some part of their game. Hopefully we can get Dennis back soon enough to see that."
The player who might have more to prove than any is Ntilikina, who has been limited to 41 games this season, sidelined with a variety of injuries — the latest a strained groin that has kept him sidelined since January 27. He practiced with Westchester Tuesday and will work with them again Thursday before possibly playing for the Knicks Friday.
It has been a lost season and since he went down the Knicks traded for Smith, who immediately grabbed the starting point guard job. But Ntilikina insisted he has nothing to prove.
“It might be important for you, but for me, just, I want to play basketball,” Ntilikina said. “I want to grow with this team, my guys. All that showing and stuff is for you guys and for the fans. Me, I hate being on the side, not playing basketball and I just want to be out there progressing and helping my teammates. So yeah, for me, it’s important to play even if it’s this late in the year.”
There are just 10 games remaining in the season and even if Ntilikina returns Friday there is no return in sight for Smith. Ntilikina said that the five-on-five scrimmaging he did with Westchester, his first since before the injury, he did feel that his conditioning and rhythm were not quite there.
“Just get back in the gym,” Fizdale said. “It’s a marathon. You just can’t look at it as, ‘Oh, I’m behind now.’ You’ve got to get right back to it, get back to working on your game and competing at a high level when the opportunity presents itself. You only can control what you can. Unfortunately for him, this thing has really been nagging and getting in the way of what he’s really wanted to do — compete.”
Notes & quotes: Mitchell Robinson set a franchise rookie record for blocked shots in a season with 136, eclipsing the 134 from Kristaps Porzingis. With a blocked shot in the 29th straight game he also passed Patrick Ewing for consecutive games with a block.