CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The game was barely five minutes old and David Fizdale was standing near midcourt, clapping his hands and waving wildly. It was a better defensive effort than the Knicks were showing on the floor as Kemba Walker — seeming surprised by just how far away Tim Hardaway Jr. and Emmanuel Mudiay were — lined up a three-point shot.
Walker promptly hit his third three-pointer, and Fizdale called a timeout with the Knicks sinking fast on their way to a 21-point second-quarter deficit. On the white board, he wrote not a play but a simple message: “Selfish.”
On this night, like most, the Knicks faced a steep deficit in talent and experience. So Fizdale kept clapping and shuffling in a bunch of players who likely won’t be on the team next season. And the Knicks came back, seemingly with more players injured than on the bench, taking a lead in the fourth quarter and sending the game into overtime. This time they didn’t fade, emerging with a 126-124 win over the Hornets at the Spectrum Center.
With the Knicks leading by two in overtime, Kevin Knox (20 points) missed two free throws with five seconds left and Walker got the ball in his hands, but his length-of-the-court drive was defended well and misfired.
That allowed the Knicks to exhale after finishing off the fourth-largest comeback win for the franchise since 1991-92.
“The first timeout, he wrote on the board ‘Selfish,’ ” said Mudiay, who scored 29 of his career-high 34 points after halftime. “He was telling the truth.’’
“In that first half, it was like every single guy that got the ball was like, ‘I’m going to take this shot, it’s my turn,’ ” Fizdale said. “I went off on them in a timeout about sharing the ball. I threw Luke [Kornet] in there and Luke is a natural at getting the ball to another guy and getting to another pick-and-roller.”
The Knicks (9-21), shorthanded to begin with, lost Frank Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson to sprained ankles. With injuries limiting them to eight healthy players by the third quarter, the unlikely hero in Fizdale’s story was Kornet.
After surviving the cut for the final roster spot a day earlier, he delivered 13 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots in 24 minutes. When he and Mudiay entered the locker room, they were drenched in ice by their teammates.
Games like this provide a bright moment in the pain of what a rebuilding season feels like. Speaking about the plan in the preseason is one thing. Living through it and absorbing beating after beating is another. So the Knicks celebrate any win as if it were an NBA Finals contest.
“I don’t know when they’re going to show up,” Fizdale said. “I love these kids. They never cease to amaze me in both ways. Trust me. They do some stuff where I go, ‘What are they doing?’ And they do stuff like this where they don’t quit.”
The Knicks were down by 15 entering the fourth quarter but came all the way back, with Kornet and Mudiay keying the run. Kornet, who did not have a three-pointer this season, hit three of them.
“I had an opportunity to get my legs under me,” he said. “I started feeling my shot. Honestly, everyone was playing really good team basketball. That’s what I thrive on, when the ball was moving and nobody cares who’s getting the shot. When in that zone as a team, your individual performance takes care of itself.”
It’s these small wins in a procession of losses that keep the Knicks from imploding.
“The young guys are getting better,” Fizdale said. “It doesn’t show in wins. But when we watch that film and we see the things that we’ve been working on with these guys and they’re taking those steps, that’s the big thing. We’re seeing who we can move forward with.”