As the Knicks quickly fell behind by double digits Friday night, there was little worth watching for the fans who made the pilgrimage to Madison Square Garden and even less reason for fans to switch their television sets from the multiple channels of NCAA Tournament games to watch the Knicks lose again.
The score was predictably one-sided, a 111-93 loss to the Denver Nuggets, the 11th in the last 12 games for the Knicks (14-59). But for one person, the game meant everything.
Frank Ntilikina finally got back on the floor after missing 24 games and nearly two months of action with a strained groin. He began what amounts to a 10-game opportunity to show that he still has some value to the franchise.
“I just pushed through it,” Ntilikina said. “I know I’m not going to be 100 percent. I know this first game is not going to be perfect in the sense of how I feel on the court. But I feel ready and we made the decision to just go and I want to play. It’s time.
“I’m really excited about being back on the floor with my guys. That’s what I’m here for. Being on the side for such a long time was really frustrating, but I was doing everything in my power to keep improving. Now I’m back on the court. That feeling of being back in a jersey is so different than being in a suit on the side.”
“We’re just happy to have him back,” coach David Fizdale said. “Trainers finally thought it was good enough to clear him. It’s been a frustrating go for everybody, especially Frank. I’m just happy he can get back on the court before the year is done.”
The results were what you might expect in what he said would be a rusty return, having had one day of five-on-five scrimmaging with the Westchester Knicks before stepping into game action. He shot 1-for-6 in 25 minutes, scored five points and added five assists and four rebounds.
It has been another lost season for Ntilikina, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. While this was pitched as a player development season for him, he actually has backslid in his growth. He’s only 20 years old, but his offensive numbers dipped and his defense never got on track as he played in the middle of a transient roster of indifferent defenders.
The Knicks remain unsure of what he is — a point guard or just a versatile defender with no offensive spot. Fizdale has sought to avoid attaching a label to him, putting him in the starting lineup at the beginning of the season as a small forward, then shifting him to his natural point guard spot.
But since Ntilikina was hurt, the Knicks traded for Dennis Smith Jr., who was taken one spot after him in the draft and has claimed the starting point guard position — or at least he had before he suffered a back injury that has sidelined him for the last five games, with no return in sight. Fizdale had spoken of wanting to see them play together, but that might not happen unless Smith can make his way back.
“Of course playing with Dennis would have been great and amazing,” Ntilikina said. “Like he said when I was on the side, he better hurry. I’m excited to play with him.”
Notes & quotes: Emmanuel Mudiay had 21 points, Kevin Knox added 19 and Mitchell Robinson had 16 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks for the Knicks. Nuggets center Nikola Jokic dominated with 21 points, 17 rebounds and five assists . . . Former Knick Mike Glenn was presented the Dick McGuire Award for his 40 years of running a basketball camp for the deaf.