Fittingly, on French Heritage Night at Madison Square Garden, Frank Ntilikina emerged with a career night — and he and coach David Fizdale left to huge ovations just seconds apart in the fourth quarter.
Ntilikina, who grew up in France, scored all 18 of his points in a span of 7:38 in arguably the best performance of his career Sunday night. Then he was called for a pair of questionable fouls, including his sixth with nine minutes left, which ended his night.
Just 27 seconds later, Fizdale took up the case for Ntilikina and was tossed with a pair of technical fouls.
There was little else to see as the Knicks fell to the Charlotte Hornets, 119-107, for their fourth straight loss.
In his 20 minutes off the bench, Ntilikina shot 7-for-11 from the field, including 4-for-4 from three-point range. After the Hornets went ahead 80-52 with 7:32 left in the third quarter, Ntilikina scored all of his points in a 33-19 surge that brought the Knicks within 99-85 with 10:47 remaining. Thirteen of his points came in the final 6:25 of the third quarter.
“It is the mindset I want to have,” said Ntilikina, who recently was benched for three straight games. “I know I can be aggressive on that court. It’s going to open up things for me but also for my teammates. I think it was an improvement tonight. I’ve got to make it consistent in the future.”
“I was really happy with the way Frank attacked,” Fizdale said. “Came out and really gave us a big spark. That’s two games in a row now where he’s really came to play. Like I said, he really took the situation when he didn’t play the right way. And he got in the lab and really started working on his stuff. And when his opportunity came again, he was ready.
“He’s shown flashes this year. But I think he finally just, you know . . . stopped worrying about if he misses a shot or what people think. He just went out there and attacked. Like I told him, when you get your chance again, stop thinking. I don’t want you thinking, just going out there attacking and playing.”
Ntilikina’s final basket, a foul-line jumper, cut the deficit to 14. Then, when he appeared to score on a drive, he was called for an offensive foul. Seconds later, he was called for a foul while guarding Tony Parker, and that was the end.
Fizdale angrily argued the calls. Then, when a timeout was called, he continued to state his case, drawing the ejection.
“He was fighting for us,” Ntilikina said. “He didn’t agree with those calls and was trying to show it to the refs. You see how he reacted. It’s the way we are as a family. It meant a lot.”
After the Knicks drew within 14, the Hornets scored 12 straight points to take a 111-85 lead.
Rookie Kevin Knox had 26 points, matching his career high, and added a career-best 15 rebounds in 41 minutes off the bench for the Knicks (8-20). According to Elias Sports, he became only the second teenager in NBA history, along with LeBron James, to have at least 25 points and 15 rebounds in a game. Tim Hardaway Jr. added 21 points.
Kemba Walker had 25 points, six rebounds and six assists for the Hornets. He has a fan in Fizdale, who was asked what made the Knicks unable to slow the Charlotte offense.
“Kemba. That’s what was going on, Kemba Walker,” Fizdale said. “He is an absolute nightmare to defend.”
Walker didn’t draw many cries of "come home!'' from the crowd, but he will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. Walker, who has spent his entire career in Charlotte, certainly will be on the short list of players the Knicks will try to court with their salary-cap space next summer.
For now, the Knicks are left with Ntilikina trying to earn back minutes at point guard, minutes he got Sunday thanks in part to a pregame hamstring strain suffered by Allonzo Trier.
After his three-game benching, Ntilikina played well Saturday and followed that up with his best offensive performance of his career. “I think his deal now is I’m hoping is taking his destiny into his own hands,” Fizdale said. “And keep turning your work into production, and every time you get your opportunity, go out there and make the most of it.”