Someday a game between the Knicks and Nets at Madison Square Garden will hold more allure for the fans than the introductions of celebrities in attendance or the halftime performance of the Amazing Savitsky Cats. But that night was not Saturday.
With the home team struggling — coach David Fizdale said afterward, “We were in mud for 2 1⁄2 quarters” — all that was left for disgruntled Knicks fans was to implore Fizdale to insert Frank Ntilikina into the lineup.
The 20-year-old point guard spent the previous three games on the bench, but with 3:43 left in the third quarter and the Knicks down by 15 points, Fizdale finally called on him. A huge ovation greeted his return to the court, and although it wasn’t enough to overcome the deficit and the Knicks lost to the Nets, 112-104, Ntilikina contributed seven points, three assists and a much-needed lift.
With three straight losses and an 8-19 record, all that counts is the future. In the final quarter, it was on display as Fizdale put Ntilikina on the court with fellow second-year wing Damyean Dotson and rookies Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier. A 19-point deficit early in the fourth quarter was cut to as little as five points.
Ntilikina scored his first points on a floater in the lane and later cut the deficit to 101-96 with a basket. But Dotson missed a layup and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson scored when Robinson goaltended his attempt. Allen Crabbe then delivered a three-point field goal to give the Nets a 106-96 lead with 4:31 left.
Ntilikina was happy to get a chance but wasn’t completely pleased. “Not completely. I think we had a chance to win the game,” he said. “We lost it. That’s the negative point tonight. But yeah, it was really positive what we did at the end, that we did it with this young group. We went out there and fought till the end. We did a good job.”
“I’m very proud of the way he handled everything,” Fizdale said. “It’s the thread of our team now . They were just competing. Frank was picking up 94 feet. Dot and Zo were making every catch difficult. Mitchell was disruptive with his hands, changing things at the rim and making them difficult. They didn’t get everything right, but they got the most important thing right, and that was the competition.”
Ntilikina said he didn’t hear the fans cheering for him, but his teammates did. “When he was coming off the bench today, I mean, you saw the standing ovation,” Knox said. “The fans loved it. They want to see him out there, keep playing.”
Before the game, Fizdale was asked what it might be like if these two teams could contend at the same time. “Oh, man, that’d be huge,” he said. “Both organizations are building and working towards that, really trying to develop their youth in their way. Hopefully attract some free agents in the summer.”
That seemed a long way off. This game was lifeless much of the night, and the starting lineup was as quiet as the crowd.
Tim Hardaway Jr. was 2-for-12 from the field, including 0-for-5 from three-point range. Noah Vonleh struggled through a four-point, three-rebound night. Only Enes Kanter displayed any signs of life with 23 points and 14 rebounds.
With wins few and far between for the Knicks and Nets right now, Fizdale reiterated what he has stressed since taking the job — that the Knicks will work to attract free agents by conducting themselves the proper way. “I think how your building functions, what people are saying about how you work with your players every day, how people are treated every day,” he said.
“I can’t speak for every team in the league, but I know for us, we have a star sitting in the wings [Kristaps Porzingis] that I think is attractive to free agents. Again, I think between myself, Steve [Mills] and Scott Perry, we have some great relationships. I think agents are going to see that they can trust us with their players to put them in great situations.”