David Fizdale has preached the need to play 48 minutes with intensity. And if the Knicks weren’t going to, at least he was.
So when the team came off the floor midway through the fourth quarter Friday night, with a huge early lead evaporated and now trying to keep the wheels from falling off, Fizdale greeted the players as they came to the bench.
Before letting them take their seats, he animatedly screamed at them, one by one, imploring them. But no strong words or motivational speeches were enough for the overmatched Knicks, who fell to 4-15 by losing their fifth straight game, 101-95, to the 76ers at Madison Square Garden.
“I just felt like in that moment, we weren’t focused on our execution and I just wanted to snap them out of it, get them back focused on what they needed to be doing,” Fizdale said. “Overall, I thought the effort was fantastic, but too many of these close games, we’ve shot poorly from the free-throw line, and that just continues to be a bug for us right now. You can’t miss 14 free throws in a game against a team like that in a close game and expect to win.”
The Knicks, who led by 16 late in the second quarter, did put up a fight. With 3:16 to play and the 76ers leading by three, Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and the Knicks’ Marcus Morris got tangled up, crashing to the floor. Simmons was called for the foul, and as Morris moved to get up, he kneed Simmons in the head. But the officials didn’t call that and sent Morris to the line, where he made it a one-point game.
The Knicks tied it at 87 on a drive by RJ Barrett, but that was the last highlight. Joel Embiid scored in the lane with 2:33 remaining, drawing the sixth foul on Mitchell Robinson. As Robinson left the court, he bumped Simmons and the two briefly had words before Robinson was ushered away.
The Knicks’ deficit stretched to 94-89 on Tobias Harris’ drive with 1:19 left, and after a timeout, Simmons swiped Frank Ntilikina’s inbounds pass, breaking away for a dunk and a seven-point lead.
Down four with 17 seconds left, Ntilikina penetrated and fed Wayne Ellington in the corner, but the Knicks’ best shooter air-balled a three-point attempt, and a pair of 76ers free throws iced the game.
Julius Randle had 22 points and 10 rebounds, Morris added 20 points and Barrett had 18 to pace the Knicks. Embiid had 27 points and 17 rebounds for the 76ers. James Ennis III added 20 points and Harris had 19.
One minute into the game, Philadelphia coach Brett Brown already was calling time as the Knicks opened with three-pointers from Morris and Ntilikina. At the end of the quarter, the Knicks were up 31-18 and Barrett had 10 points. It continued into the second quarter with the Knicks taking a 51-35 lead. At halftime, the Knicks had shot 7-for-12 from beyond the arc and the 76ers were 2-for-18.
But the Knicks had been down this road before, building a 17-point third-quarter lead in Philadelphia just nine days earlier and seeing that disappear.
Less than four minutes into the second half, the lead was down to four points as Simmons stole Randle’s pass and threw down a powerful breakaway dunk. After three quarters, the 76ers had taken a 70-68 lead.
“I saw them come out swinging and I saw us kind of playing not to lose,” Fizdale said. “And that was something that I was obviously riding them about, getting their heads into being in attack mode, getting back to dictating tempo and defensively being more active.”
As Fizdale noted, the Knicks were just 19-for-33 at the line. That is not unusual; the Knicks are the NBA's worst free-throw shooting team.
“Brother, I’m about to put sage in the room,” Fizdale said. “We’ve done so much different stuff. In the gym, when we’re shooting free throws and working on them, guys make their free throws . . . But for some reason, when we get into the games, we’re just not knocking them down at the level I know we’re capable of. Again, we just don’t have that margin for error to shoot under 70 percent in a game, especially in the close games.”