CLEVELAND — When David Fizdale shuffled the Knicks starting lineup again, putting Kevin Knox in at small forward in place of Mario Hezonja, he could point to a number of reasons. A reward for Knox’s efforts Sunday. Hezonja’s struggles. The four straight losses the Knicks brought into Quicken Loans Arena.
Or, he could go with what he described.
“Why the hell not?” Fizdale said.
It’s really as good a reason as any this season. The Knicks entered the game with an 8-20 record and the Cavaliers were at 6-21 so the only thing on the line was positioning for the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery. But in real time, on a night when the Knicks took a step toward their own future by putting this year’s lottery pick, Knox, in the starting lineup, it was his play at the end of the game that provided hope, as the Knicks lost another game in the chase to the bottom, falling, 113-106.
In the final minutes Knox was still on the floor and, down six, drove in for a layup but had it blocked by Alec Burks. He recovered and blocked a Jordan Clarkson jumper on the other end and with 1:05 remaining he connected on a three-point field goal, cutting the gap to 105-104. Knox then finished a break, taking a feed from Emmanuel Mudiay and dunking it over a backtracking Matthew Dellavedova. That gave the Knicks a 106-105 lead - their first since 6-4.
“We fought really hard to come back,” said Knox, who finished with 19 points and seven rebounds. “So I think that moment right there, emotionally, it was fun. I was excited. We went up one, ended up losing the game, but [the dunk] was a fun move for me, probably one of my best throughout the season, just to see my teammates cheering me, coaches are happy and hyped. It was pretty cool.”
“You’re just starting to see him get a little bit better and get a little more aggressive and a little more certain,” Fizdale said. “I’m really happy with the way he’s growing.”
There was plenty of room for growth as Knox and the rest of the starters were porous defensively, surrendering 39 first-quarter point. The Knicks fell behind by 22 points in the first half, but cut the deficit to nine at halftime and it took just over three minutes into the third quarter for the Knicks to pull even.
Knox’s late heroics would not hold up though. Rodney Hood then hit a jump hook with 23.7 seconds left to push the Cavs back in front. Mudiay then forced up a tough shot in the lane with 17 seconds left that bounced off the rim and Cedi Osman hit a pair of free throws to up the lead to three with 15.7 seconds left. Mudiay’s inbounds pass was stolen and one more turnover led to the game ending with harsh words as David Nwaba dunked with 1.8 seconds left rather than run the clock out. Tim Hardaway Jr. fouled him and had words with Nwaba.
Knox had made a brief appearance as a starting power forward this season — a three-game stretch in which Fizdale put all three rookies in the lineup. But he quickly discarded that plan, keeping Knox on the bench until he broke out with a 26-point, 15-rebound performance Sunday — becoming only the second teenager, along with LeBron James, to have at least 25 points and 15 rebounds in a game.
“In 41 minutes he had 26 and 15,” Fizdale said. “It’s like, ‘How do I keep getting him close to that minute mark?’ What are those reps going to do for him? Even when sometimes it’s going to look a little rough just keep pushing him out there and giving him confidence. That was the plan from the beginning. But early on, with the injury and everything, it wasn’t falling into place that way and it got a little choppy. And so, I just felt like, ‘Why not.’”
Knox played small forward much of the night Sunday after his starts coming at power forward earlier in the season. Fizdale sees this spot as his future, at least for now until the 19-year-old gets stronger.
It was Knox and Frank Ntilikina that helped spur the comeback, Ntilikina adding 12 of his 16 points in the second half.
“His start was a little shaky,” Fizdale said of Ntilikina. “My big thing was how is he going to respond to it. I really thought he got himself going and helped us have a chance to win that game.”