Frank Ntilikina was hungry to get back on the court, and the Knicks looked like a team hungry for its first win of the season. They both left Madison Square Garden satisfied Friday night.
Ntilikina played with poise, made some nifty passes and played strong defense in his regular-season home debut, and the Knicks didn’t get rattled after falling behind by 10 in the first quarter. They even looked as if they knew the plays in a 107-86 bashing of the Nets.
The Knicks, the NBA’s last winless team, rebounded nicely from Tuesday’s 21-point loss to the Celtics with a complete performance, never trailing in the second half. “We had to get that first win of the season,” Kristaps Porzingis said.
“Were we the only team without a win?” said Courtney Lee, who questioned whether the team knew the plays after the loss to the Celtics. “You can scratch us off that board.”
Jeff Hornacek made a lineup change, inserting Jarrett Jack for Ramon Sessions at point guard. The Knicks (1-3) moved the ball well, played aggressive defense, and dominated 55-34 on the glass. They held the Nets 35 points under their season average and had a 31-6 advantage on second-chance points.
The Nets (3-3) looked nothing like the team that beat the Cavaliers two nights earlier.
“We have to handle success better and play on the road better,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “That’s the next step for this team.”
Porzingis led the Knicks with 30 points and nine rebounds. It was his third 30-point game of the season. Lee added 13 points and Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott scored 12 each. Kanter’s points came during a 36-24 third quarter that put away the game.
D’Angelo Russell scored 15 and Quincy Acy 12 for the Nets.
But the biggest revelation was Ntilikina. The French rookie returned from a two-game absence because of a sprained left ankle and showed he can run a team. In 22 minutes, the No. 8 pick had nine points and matched Jack with five assists.
Ntilikina played only 7:32 in the Knicks’ opening-night loss to the Thunder and was scoreless with one assist and one turnover.
“I did a great job and we did a great job with Jarrett running the team,” Ntilikina said. “We got the win, so that’s what’s most important. We did a great job with the team preparing for this game. In my first game at the Garden, it helped me the way we prepared for this game to be comfortable on the court.”
What has impressed the Knicks most about Ntilikina is the way he stays even-keeled despite the pressure on him to play point guard in New York. “For a young kid, 19 years old, you don’t see that bright-eyed ‘oh my gosh, I’m in the Garden,’ ” Hornacek said. “He just plays. He’s got the great feel for the game. He knows what to do. He’s not rushed. He just takes his time.”
Said Porzingis, “I like how he came in the game and didn’t force anything. He had a good pace and controlled the team. Being 19 years old, he’s great at doing that. He missed some shots, but overall he had a great game. He’s going to be able to get triple-doubles. That’s what type of player he is.”
The Knicks led by five at the half and opened up the game with a 25-6 run in the third quarter. Kanter, who had three offensive rebounds in the quarter, scored eight points and Porzingis had seven in the run, which put the Knicks up 72-50 with 4:24 left in the third.
After the loss to the Celtics, Lee sounded an alarm when he said some of the players didn’t know the plays. That could have led to the lineup switch with Jack and Sessions. The Knicks found an effective play early: give the ball to the 7-3 Porzingis and have him shoot over the smaller guy guarding him. He scored six of the Knicks’ first eight points and had 14 in the first half.
Point guard play hasn’t been a strength overall for the Knicks in many years. They hope Ntilikina can change that.
He quickly made an impact with his defense and playmaking, recording three assists and one steal in eight first-half minutes. The Knicks were plus-eight with him on the floor, and he helped turn a seven-point deficit into a one-point lead by the time he left.
“He got the crowd into it a little bit with some of his passes,” Hornacek said. “He’s got great court vision. He’s got the size to pass around and over guys. So he played a great game tonight.”