LOS ANGELES — In the hours before the Knicks played their first game after Kristaps Porzingis tore his anterior cruciate ligament 11 months ago, Tim Hardaway Jr. was not about to quit. “Tank is not in my vocabulary,” he said. “If anybody feels like we should be tanking or should be doing something like that, they’re rooting for the wrong team.”
Now, as the Knicks make their way through the season without Porzingis, Hardaway finds himself the only established veteran in the starting lineup and sees a player-development project taking place around him. Even a 119-112 win over the shorthanded Lakers on Friday night that ended the Knicks’ losing streak at eight games doesn’t change that reality.
The Lakers were without LeBron James, still rehabilitating a strained groin, as well as Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo.
Lonzo Ball’s three-pointer brought the Lakers within 114-112 with 1:13 remaining, but a block by JaVale McGee on Enes Kanter (16 points, 15 rebounds) was correctly ruled goaltending. Mario Hezonja’s steal and Kanter’s layup with 33.6 seconds left started the L.A. crowd rushing for the exits.
“It’s obviously a tough pill to swallow,” Hardaway said after the team’s morning shootaround at UCLA. “You definitely want to try to win as many games as possible. I’m a competitor. None of us got here by losing ballgames for our respective ballclubs when we were in college or in high school. Everybody was winners. Everybody wanted to win.”
The Knicks (10-29) took a 22-5 lead six minutes into the game and converted seven three-pointers in the first quarter for a 39-25 lead. But after Ivica Zubac blocked a shot by Hardaway (22 points), Brandon Ingram (21 points) scored with 3:15 left in the third quarter to give the Lakers their first lead at 85-84.
The Lakers brought a 92-86 lead into the fourth quarter, but the Knicks went ahead with the help of an assortment of players who had not gotten off the bench much lately — Trey Burke (16 points) and Hezonja (10).
The Knicks lost Frank Ntilikina in the first quarter when he suffered a right ankle strain after playing only 56 seconds. X-rays were negative.
The players may not be interested in tanking, but the front office and coach David Fizdale have set a course toward the lottery, and the new system allots equal odds to the bottom three teams for the first pick.
Hardaway’s comments last season were directed mostly at fans who were eying the lottery rather than the playoffs. That netted Kevin Knox, and with the team bound for another lottery pick, there is no pretense of chasing a playoff berth.
Hardaway still believes fans shouldn’t hope the Knicks lose.
“Yeah. I agree with that a hundred percent,” he said. “I’m pretty sure if they were put in our position, they wouldn’t want to feel this way. Everybody has their own opinions. I’m not here to tell them what to think or what not to think. I’m just here to tell them what type of person I am, and I know that it goes with the rest of the 14 ballplayers on this ballclub.”
He added, “I mean, Coach Fiz and a lot of the guys, we all believe we’re better than our record speaks. He always tells us to stay in the moment, and we are who we are right now. We make mistakes. We missed rotations in games we should’ve won, we made ridiculous decisions as players in those games which caused us to lose . . . We are where we are. We’ve got to take it to the chin and move forward.”