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Knicks continue experimenting with lineup in preseason loss to Hawks

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) defends Knicks

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) defends Knicks guard Dennis Smith Jr. (5) in the first quarter of a preseason game on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019 at Madison Square Garden. Credit: Corey Sipkin

When the Knicks finish off the preseason Friday night the hype that will earn it a national television audience is that Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans are coming to Madison Square Garden. But for Knicks coach David Fizdale the game represents one last chance to try to figure out just how to fit the newly-constructed roster together before the regular season begins.

Wednesday night marked the first time that Fizdale had his entire roster healthy enough to suit up, the first time that Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina were both available since the Knicks dealt for Smith ahead of last year’s trade deadline. But as the game wore on it was no easier to pick a starting lineup.

What the Knicks watched was the Hawks’ 42-year-old Vince Carter, making his last go-round in the NBA, look better than just about anyone on their youthful roster— bringing the crowd at the Garden the Hawks bench to its feet as he drained four three-point field goals in the first half, finishing with 17 points as the Hawks beat the Knicks, 100-96.

“Will he retire already?” Fizdale said with a smile. “I’m so tired of him.”

Elfrid Payton, who was signed as a free agent and started the first two preseason games with Smith sidelined, did not get off the bench. Smith took the starting assignment and in trying to chase around Hawks’ second-year point guard Trae Young (23 points) was on the bench with two fouls just 2 minutes and 12 seconds into the game. Ntilkina came on and committed two fouls, too, in just under two minutes. 

He stayed in the game and late in the first quarter came out and Fizdale experimented with rookie RJ Barrett at the point. Barrett took the lead guard role again in the fourth quarter and provided a highlight, feeding Mitchell Robinson a lob for an easy dunk.

“It’s obviously going to be ups and downs,” Fizdale said before the game. “it will take us time to really click and have cohesion. The thing I like we have a worker’s group, have a bunch of unselfish guys who really want to get this thing together quickly. I feel like every day we put in gets us closer to doing that.”

Fizdale said Tuesday that one of his demands of his point guard is, “The biggest thing is, is he guarding his position?” It was hard to pick Smith on that basis Wednesday and in the fourth quarter the Knicks opted to double team Young every time he had the ball in the halfcourt, trying to get the ball out of his hands.

With 4:56 left Smith hit a jumper, his first field goal of the preseason, to tie the game at 91. 

“It was tough to get a rhythm,” Smith said. “I had two early fouls. Just trying to get my wind back right now, get my rhythm back.”

Ntilikina took his place and the Knicks down by three and immediately grabbed an offensive rebound and fed Bobby Portis for a driving dunk. Ntilikina then smothered a Young drive, knocking the ball off Young. Ntilikina missed a three-point field goal with the Knicks up one and on the other end Carter fired from beyond the arc and didn’t miss. Ntilikina swiped a Carter inbounds pass with 25 seconds left, but Julius Randle missed the second free-throw attempt and the Knicks were down one.

“Competition,” Fizdale said of Ntilikina. “I just really thought he battled. He organized us. He ran the team. He stayed aggressive. He got a timely rebound down the stretch to give us another chance. He’s had a solid training camp.”

Fizdale also shuffled Portis into the starting center spot and brought Robinson off the bench. Barrett, Randle and Marcus Morris have been the constants through the first three preseason games, but Fizdale did say that Kevin Knox could get a start Friday.

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