ORLANDO — Sometimes it seems as if the Knicks go out of their way to make things hard on themselves.
In a season that already looks bound for another trip to the lottery, the goal is certainly to be better than last year’s 17-win disaster. But there is also a need on a roster filled with expiring contracts to continue the development of the young players on the roster. That has meant that rookie RJ Barrett has stepped into a starting role and rarely left the floor — averaging nearly 40 minutes per game.
And on a night like Wednesday when the Knicks were without Dennis Smith Jr., who was with his family in North Carolina mourning the loss of his stepmother, and Elfrid Payton, who was sidelined with a strained right hamstring, it seemed simple that this was the time that Frank Ntilikina would get to show if he could be the player that the franchise has never quite seemed to believe he can be.
But even with Ntilikina as the only true point guard on the active roster, Knicks coach David Fizdale opted to start Barrett at point guard. The result was predictable, turnovers, scattered possessions and lackluster defense, digging themselves hole after hole until they could not crawl back out, falling, 95-83, to the Orlando Magic to drop to 1-4 on the season.
Leading by two at the half the Knicks were outscored by 14 points after the break. The Knicks struggled to find any sort of offense in the fourth quarter with or without a point guard, seeing the game fade away until Aaron Gordon scored on a breakaway dunk for an exclamation point.
“They had a good start to the game and then it was the exact opposite in the second half,” Fizdale said of the starting unit he put on the floor. “But that’s a credit to our bench. Our bench got that game back for us. Just that last six-and-a-half, seven minutes, the ball just stuck.”
Ntilikina got plenty of time on the floor, scoring seven points in the first quarter, and helped the Knicks come back from a 13-point deficit in the third quarter. He finished with seven points and four assists in 29 minutes.
“Fantastic,” Fizdale said. “I thought he played a great floor game. He really defended. Again, got us organized. Helped our pace. He’s playing with a lot of confidence and I love seeing that.”
Ntilikina has been shuttled through various roles, but rarely gotten a chance to get extended minutes as a starting point guard in his seasons with the Knicks. Fizdale insisted that Ntilikina would not be affected by being passed over again this time.
"No, not at all," Fizdale said before the game. "He’s not even thinking like that,” Fizdale said. “He understands exactly what I'm doing. I communicate to these guys why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
It was a night when the Knicks needed a boost from somewhere and it never came. Marcus Morris shot 2-for-11. Kevin Knox was just 3-for-10. Wayne Ellington started alongside Barrett in the backcourt and shot 1-for-8.
Still, for Ntilikina, it was an opportunity that has seemed like a mirage since he was drafted with the No. 8 overall pick by the Knicks in the summer of 2017.
It was just days later that the man who oversaw the draft, Phil Jackson, was fired. And with a new management team in place and a series of injuries setting him back, Ntilikina has found his chances to not just play, but get a steady flow of minutes at his natural point guard position, which is as rare as a Knicks playoff victory.
“We know this is a decision that the coach makes,” Ntilikina said afterward. “Us as players, every player has got to be ready for any roles the coach wants them to do. So this is my mindset. It’s all about the team, all about where I fit the best and I think it’s the mindset of every player on the team, which is great.”
Ntilikina had played only a total of three minutes over the first three games of the season before he was pushed into action Monday with Smith away from the team and Payton going down with the hamstring injury in the third quarter. He shot 0-for-6 and was scoreless, but Fizdale praised him for what he did contribute in the team’s win.
“You know, same mindset every game," Ntilikina said before the game. "Just trying to bring everything I can bring to the team on both sides of the court. If my shot doesn’t fall I’m going to bring energy, organize the team, push the pace and just have a presence out here.”