DALLAS — As the Knicks and Mavericks took the floor at American Airlines Center on Friday night, this was supposed to be the coming-out party for the Knicks’ former lottery pick. But which one it was might have been up for debate afterward.
The game was circled on the calendar as the first opportunity for 2015 lottery pick Kristaps Porzingis to face the Knicks since his trade to Dallas, a deal accompanied by plenty of drama and acrimony. But it was Frank Ntilikina, the long-overlooked 2017 lottery pick, who produced what he said was his most complete game in the NBA as the Knicks earned a 106-102 win.
Porzingis had tried to say this was just another game, that he was beyond it all. But from the first shot he took — a three-point field goal that slipped cleanly through the net — it was clear that he was out to make a point. And he didn’t stop until he had 28 of them. But what he could not get was a win as Ntilikina had 14 points, six rebounds, four assists, four steals and three blocked shots.
What was most memorable was the play Ntilikina couldn’t complete. If there is one thing he has lacked that Porzingis has had, it is confidence and aggressiveness on the offensive end. But late in the first half, Ntilikina drove from the top of the key and tried to throw down a dunk on Porzingis, who blocked it. It originally was called a foul but was overturned on a coach’s challenge.
“Honestly, it really didn’t matter if it was Kristaps or not,” Ntilikina said. “I just thought it was the right thing to do is to go at the rim and be aggressive. That’s what I need to do more, so it was what it was.
“I mean, I was trying to go for it. Of course I wanted to have it. But when you have a big guy like this, then the best thing to do is either draw him and pass it or go full speed and try to get the foul. I almost had it, they challenged it, but next time I’ll try to get it.”
Said Knicks coach David Fizdale, “This was his best game since he’s been in the league. Just what he’s been doing is getting better and better. Every game he becomes more confident. I’m really happy for the kid.”
Marcus Morris had 29 points and Julius Randle added 21 for the Knicks (2-7). Luka Doncic had 38 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists for Dallas.
Just 48 hours earlier, Porzingis had poured his heart out, wondering aloud when his game would come back to him after he missed 20 months while rehabilitating a torn left Achilles tendon. When the lights came on this time, though, he was ready.
“Out of all these games, I was probably the most relaxed out there,” said Porzingis, who had nine rebounds and five blocks and is averaging 20.1 points. “It was more me trying to do too much. Tonight was a great opportunity for me, another game against my old team and stuff. I just wanted to play well. Tonight I took a step forward. It sucks that we didn’t win.”
Porzingis was met by Fizdale on the court after the game. “I just asked him was he happy,” Fizdale said. “That’s what it’s all about. You’ve got to find happiness in this league. He said he was happy, he’s enjoying it. I told him I’m just really happy to see him back out there healthy and running around.”
Said Porzingis, “He said he was happy to see me and happy that I was happy. We exchanged some words. And I know he’s trying his best for the team to play well and putting in guys in situations where they can succeed and giving Frank a great opportunity now, and he showed what he’s capable of, so it’s, I know Fizdale is doing his best to make that thing work. It was good to see him. I know the type of coach he is and the type of character he has, so it was good to see him.’’
The Knicks got the best of Porzingis this time, but he will get another chance Thursday when the Mavericks visit the Garden. “I don’t know [what to expect],” he said. “Probably a lot of noise. I don’t know if it’s going to be positive or negative. But it’s going to be a lot of emotion, I think from the fans and for me also, coming back to New York. It’s going to be interesting. I’m looking forward to the game. I spent four years of my life living there. It’s going to be special coming back to New York for sure.”