The introductions were complete, the anthem sung and the music finally coming to a halt as the Knicks took the floor at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks knew that this season, with the promise of a patient rebuild, would have its growing pains. But amid the hoopla of opening night, they didn’t want it to be right from the opening tip.
The enthusiasm of first-year coach David Fizdale and the confidence of the young team was tested as the Knicks slumped to the bench just three minutes and 57 seconds into the season, trailing the Hawks 10-2 after missing their first nine field-goal attempts. And when a fan took the floor during the timeout and banked in a halfcourt shot to win $10,000, it just seemed like salt in the wound.
But if there are going to be ups and downs this season, that down was followed by an up that for a night provided a hint of what could someday be. The Knicks piled on a franchise-record 49 second-quarter points, building a lead of 28 as they coasted to a 126-107 win.
"I think that’s what helped spark us as well," Tim Hardaway Jr. said of the halfcourt heave by George Holmes of Northport. "You know, he made that basket a little bigger for us going out of that timeout. Congrats to him as well."
With the seal broken, Frank Ntilikina converted the Knicks' first basket, a three-pointer to start a 12-0 run that turned the game around. From there Hardaway Jr., with his father, Tim, in attendance, took over. After missing his first four shots, Hardaway drained eight in a row, and by halftime he’d piled up 22 points while shooting 8-for-14. After converting the eight he missed six straight, but still posted a game-high 31 points. Kevin Knox struggled through a 4-for-16 shooting performance and Mitchell Robinson played just one minute before tweaking his ankle, but undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier poured in 15 points. Ups and downs.
“The whole time I’ve said the last 12 to 14 years success was determined on how far you went,” Fizdale said. “I don’t think that’s a fair gauge for this team. And I don’t know if I have the gauge because I don’t want to put a cap on them. This team may catch fire and figure some things out and may be a surprise or this team may go through some roller coasters.
“All I want to see at the end of the day, are we getting better every day at what we talk about, at what we work at? Is our culture getting stronger every day? Are people buying in and really committing to what we’re trying to do? Are players getting better? At the end of the year, hopefully we can say our player development and how we grew these guys and the way we committed to the competition and committed to each other, we can look back and say we didn’t cheat that.”
While this may be a season with struggles, the fans were more than happy to play along as Hardaway Jr. implored them to cheer and Trier threw down a resounding dunk that brought back echoes of fellow-undrafted free agent John Starks. It drove the fans --and the coach -- into a frenzy.
“I didn’t mean to celebrate,” Fizdale said. “It was not good class on my part, but wow, man. I’m still a fan of the game. Certain things happen in a game sometimes and you just go, ‘Whoa.’ That one kind of got me.”
Fizdale wanted to make this game out to be like any other, an opponent on the schedule with a goal of competing and winning. But the start of his tenure as Knicks coach could not just be another night.
"Awesome. Dream come true," Fizdale said. "I can’t really put it into words. My brother was here to watch, my wife was here, my best friend growing up. I’m not going to date myself, but 38 years I’ve been friends with this guy. Yeah, it was great. And my mom was watching at home, so it means a lot."
The Knicks, even while building a lead, looked as sloppy as you might expect from a team that had three rookies and a 20-year-old on the court at one time. But they also provided what Fizdale hoped for --defensive effort and constant attacking offensively.
“While they’re going through what they have to go through to grow,'' Fizdale said, "I can just be a stable person for them no matter what’s going on.”