BOSTON — As the game wore on and the Knicks hit a shot or two, a Celtics fan yelled, “You guys are blowing your chances at Zion!”
That was a reference to the possible No. 1 overall pick, Duke freshman Zion Williamson. But for the Knicks, in full rebuild mode, it’s not just about next year’s draft lottery. Every game is a showcase for potential free-agent targets, especially contests such as Thursday night’s 128-100 loss to the Celtics — with a national television audience looking on and one of the prime free agents, Kyrie Irving, in the opposing lineup.
What the Knicks showed hardly was anything that would entice Irving, who has declared his intentions to sign a long-term deal with Boston, to jump ship.
The sales pitch was on display again, a plea to potential targets — don’t look at the record (now 8-18), the score or the mystery that is Kristaps Porzingis’ rehabilitation. Opportunities like this are the best shot they have to convince targets in the coming free-agent market that these are different times.
Phil Jackson has been paid off to go away. Madison Square Garden executive chairman James Dolan has willingly bought into the rebuilding process. The sales pitch is that with general manager Scott Perry, team president Steve Mills and coach David Fizdale now leading the way, the franchise is a worthy destination.
“Absolutely. It’s much more about the perception of the organization,” Fizdale said after the morning shootaround at TD Garden. “What I think we’ve done together with Steve and Scott and Mr. Dolan and myself and all our staff is we changed the perception of how we operate and treat each other and what’s important.
“That’s the first step in getting people to come to New York. When they see we have a really tight ship, really take care of our guys, our guys get better and get a lot of attention. Hopefully all of those things, with the combination of the understanding we have Kristaps Porzingis there, too, this team isn’t necessarily what our record is when you put him in the mix. We have something free agents will like.”
That was hard to see. Irving, who still is expected to enter free agency even after promising to sign on with Boston, had 22 points and eight assists to lead a lineup filled with talent. If he seemed to be enjoying himself, he told reporters, “We should have fun kicking people’s [butt]. We should. We really should.”
Tim Hardaway Jr. had 22 points, Emmanuel Mudiay added 17 and Enes Kanter had 14 points and 11 rebounds for the Knicks, who had beaten Boston here two weeks earlier. They expected the Celtics to be motivated for revenge, and Fizdale had warned them: “Brace for impact.”
Who will take the Knicks’ money is the question that could determine the fate of the franchise and the current front office. The Knicks went into rebuild mode and have filled the roster with players on expiring contracts and a handful of youngsters — rookies Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier and second-year players Frank Ntilikina and Damyean Dotson.
That doesn’t produce wins, but the Knicks hope that someone — Irving or Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard or Kemba Walker — will consider them a process worth trusting.
“There was this thing, I don’t know what — people don’t want to come here or they were just scared,” Enes Kanter said. “With all this new front office, with the coach and everything, it definitely changes. If you see the moves, see the pieces have changed, you see all the young guys have come in and everything, I think it’s definitely changing. It’s definitely going to a good destination.”
Said Fizdale, “We all know each other around the league, so I get a lot of feedback from different people about just what people think about us, how hard our kids play, the fact that we have a no-quit attitude. Obviously, Scott and Steve have great reputations with different people around the league and hopefully my relationships will be another way to come and bring it all together.
“I think that it’s the feedback from the people that’s been with the Knicks for a long time. That’s the people I really listen to, the people in the building. And they’ve gone through a lot of different staffs and coaches and things like that so they can tell me, ‘Hey, this is where we fell short before, this is where we’re pretty good.’ Because there’s some stuff that was good in the building and I don’t want to change that. So those were the folks that helped us navigate it, and I just think that as long as the people in the building feel valued and they’re really happy coming to work every day, then we got something good going on.”
But for now, the results on the floor haven’t been good. “I don’t know what happened, but I do know one thing,” Hardaway said. “You’re not going to win in this league giving up 30 points every single quarter, so we need to do a better job defensively as a team and individually, including myself. So until we got that dealt with, we’re not going to win any ballgames.”