David Fizdale was trying to remain focused Sunday night, looking to avoid another humiliating game for his young Knicks as they faced another team running out the string, the Wizards.
The two provided an equally matched contest, and the crowd at Madison Square Garden cheered as if it were Game 7 of the NBA Finals while watching Mario Hezonja continue to build his free-agent resume.
Starting at point guard for the second straight game, Hezonja scored a career-high 30 points — two games after setting his previous mark of 29 against the Magic and one game after posting a triple-double against the Rockets. He hit a go-ahead three-pointer in the final minute and pointed at the Washington bench as the Knicks won, 113-110.
The Knicks, who are 16-64 and have clinched the NBA’s worst record, hope to avoid setting a franchise record for losses in a season. They need to split their final two games against the Bulls and Pistons to tie their 17-win season of four years ago and need to win both games to beat it.
It is a nightly task for the Knicks to at least avoid embarrassment. With the team down to nine healthy bodies for Friday night’s game in Houston, Fizdale had no notion of emptying the bench as the clock wound down on the Rockets’ 120-96 victory.
He was trying to coax what he could out of the undermanned squad in the final minutes and didn’t notice that the Rockets’ starters departed for the locker room with approximately 1:30 remaining in a game in which the Knicks had trailed by 42 points.
Fizdale downplayed the move by James Harden, Chris Paul and the rest of the Rockets’ starters. The move was pointed out during the game by Knicks analyst Walt Frazier.
“I didn’t realize it during the game,” Fizdale said. “I found out later. I don’t know what they left for. It’s not for me to try to figure that stuff out. I was trying to focus on our guys playing a good fourth quarter.
“I don’t think it happened to me. I can’t recall necessarily, but I don’t think this was something directed at me or our guys. That’s their decision to do what they want to do, and mine is to get our guys playing hard. I was focused on pushing through that fourth quarter. I don’t really have an opinion on it. That’s something you have to ask the other team how they felt about that. Our guys I know were focused on the game and playing hard.”
The Knicks have spoken of needing to earn respect around the league, whether it is from the opposition or the referees. They know they have a ways to go in that regard.
“Yeah, you’ve got to earn it. That’s for sure,” Fizdale said. “You’ve got to earn it all the way around the league. That’s something they understood coming into this. All these guys, they knew that people were going to be going at them and really trying to get them steeled up because that’s what the league does for you. The refs are going to call the game for who’s aggressive and who’s physical and who’s taking it to the hoop. And that’s something that our guys are having to learn.”
Lance Thomas, the longest-tenured Knick on the league’s youngest team, said: “If that’s what they did, that’s what they allow their players to do over there, that’s on them.” But he agreed with Fizdale that respect is something that must be earned by the young team.
“We’re going to need to keep fighting,” Thomas said. “We’ve seen a little of everything this year. That’s only going to make our guys grow faster and be more mentally tough throughout their careers. That’s all I got to say about that.”
A Rockets spokesman told the New York Post that the players had left early to start treatment. Harden, however, already was on his way out of the arena Friday as Fizdale was conducting his postgame media session. He exchanged goodbyes with Fizdale as he headed out minutes after the game ended.
The Knicks have plenty of problems of their own as they go through the final games, and Fizdale insists he isn’t worried about what the Rockets did.
“I’m not losing any sleep about it,” he said. “I got a game today. I’m focused on what’s in front of me. I don’t get caught up in that stuff. Again, you don’t know what they had or what they had going on. I don’t like to speculate on stuff like that.”