BOSTON — Marcus Morris spent two seasons alongside Jayson Tatum in Boston, imparting lessons to the young Celtics star. And when they talked about Morris returning to TD Garden as a Knick, Morris would tell Tatum, “There’s only two people who can guard [you] in the league, and I’m one of them. The other one is my brother. I stand on that.”
Maybe he is right. The stage was set for him to celebrate his return Friday night, and he came up huge late. But after Morris hit a tying three-pointer with 4.7 seconds left, giving him 15 fourth-quarter points and prompting chest bumps and high-fives from his teammates, Tatum got the ball for the Celtics.
Morris was not guarding him, boxing out under the rim, but he could see what was coming, the moves he had helped him rehearse. And with rookie RJ Barrett desperately trying to stop him, Tatum drained a baseline jumper to send the Knicks to a 104-102 loss.
Morris exchanged hugs with his former Celtics teammates and blew kisses to the crowd after the game, but despite a 29-point effort, he could not leave with what he wanted most — and what the Knicks (1-5) needed most.
“Pretty much,” Morris said when asked if he knew what Tatum would do. “Step to the right, pull. Good shot. He’s a good player. A contested two. Brad [Stevens] drew up a great play. He made it and it was good to see him hit his first one. I wish it was against somebody else. But hey, it’s the NBA.”
Morris, who has struggled with his shot, found it in his return to Boston. The Knicks defended well. And still, in the end, it was just another hard lesson, another painful loss.
“[Morris] needed a breakout game, to see that ball go through constantly,” coach David Fizdale said. “What better gym to do it in than the old one that you were in? He wanted that game, to win it for us. The kid Tatum hit a hell of a shot.’’
The last-second shot ruined what had been a solid effort by the Knicks as they shifted strategies and seemed to change their fortunes.
When the Celtics’ Kemba Walker scored 32 points at Madison Square Garden last week in a one-sided win over the Knicks, Fizdale kept Frank Ntilikina on the bench for all but 18 seconds. As recently as Thursday in practice, he had stuck to the idea that even with Ntilikina forced into action in a depleted backcourt, he would have him coming off the bench.
But on Friday, as the Knicks went through their morning shootaround with every seat in the stands adorned with a poster of Walker, Fizdale announced that he had a change of heart and was inserting Ntilikina into the starting lineup for the first time this season.
Ntilikina did his part, solidifying the Knicks’ defense and limiting Walker when he was the primary defender on him. But the Knicks turned to a strategy of almost constant switching, leaving mismatches all over the floor. And in the end, Walker did his damage, scoring 33 points.
But the Knicks have more issues than just figuring out how to use Ntilikina. Shooting woes, turnovers in bunches and untimely defensive lapses spoiled what was a tough fight.
The frustration showed late in the game as Morris had to be dragged away by Julius Randle after he was raked above the eye by Gordon Hayward and got no call from the officials. After calling timeout, he angrily tried to get to the officials to voice his gripe.
“Right now I’m not even going to comment on the refs,” Morris said. “Obviously, 18,000 people seen the foul. Blood was shed. No foul call. Bottom line.”