PHOENIX — Arizona is filled with games this time of year, baseball spring training games scattered around various sunny locales in which the final score is barely remembered. So the meeting Wednesday night between the Knicks and Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena fit right in.
And while the baseball spring training games are loaded with players for whom hope springs eternal, this game might have a faint hint of that, too. The Suns have six rookies on their roster. The Knicks have put their faith in their three rookies and belief that free agency and the upcoming NBA Draft will turn their fortunes.
The Knicks left the game with the worst record in the league at 13-52, the Suns are 15-51. If these two teams are the dregs of the NBA, this game put on display that what separates them is deceptive. After already beating the Knicks by 18 in New York earlier this season, Phoenix blew out the Knicks, leading by as many as 22 in the fourth quarter before emptying the bench and taking a 107-96 victory.
They race toward the NBA Draft Lottery with an almost certain spot in the bottom three places — which all bring an equal 14 percent chance of landing the first pick and a shot at deciding if Zion Williamson really is the franchise-altering piece that they have been waiting for all these years.
And there is where they intersect with the games with scores that have little meaning. The difference is that they make their way to the end of the schedule insisting each win and loss is vital.
Knicks coach David Fizdale was certainly doing his part, bringing Jason Kidd to the Knicks morning shootaround at the arena to tutor his point guards, and inserting veteran DeAndre Jordan back into the starting lineup after he missed five games with a sprained ankle.
The Knicks have lost four straight games while the Suns have won four of five — including the prior two over the Lakers and Bucks. The Suns have Devin Booker, who put up a season-high 41 points. The Knicks had Kevin Knox shooting 1-for-5 on the night, turned the ball over 16 times in the first half alone and twice threw passes into the stands without a teammate anywhere near the target.
“Two desperados, fighting for crumbs on the table,” Fizdale said before the game. “That’s really what it is. They’re a young team that’s going through it this year and going through growing pains. It’s the same with us and all the rest of these young teams that are at the bottom of the barrel.”
“No question,” said Suns coach Igor Kokoskov. “We can’t develop young guys in a losing environment. That’s the wrong way to develop a young team. So we will never use: We are losing games. That’s fact, that’s not opinion. But during that period of time there’s no individual goals. If you want to develop young guys they have to compete to win every quarter and every game. That’s got to be the mindset. We’ll never substitute individual goals versus team goals, which is winning games. There’s no meaningless or more important games. Every game is the Super Bowl.”
While the teams share a similar path to this point, the Knicks having lost at least 50 games for a fifth straight season while the Suns reached that dismal mark for a fourth straight season, they may have a different prospects among the current roster.
The Suns have the No. 1 overall pick from last summer’s draft, DeAndre Ayton, as well as another lottery pick from that draft, Mikal Bridges. They have a young elite scorer in Devin Booker and acquired Kelly Oubre Jr. ahead of the trade deadline. With Kokoskov a first-year coach the Suns are loaded with players who have just met in recent months.
“Yeah, you’ve just got to think about a lot of teams who are great right now,” Bridges said. “Warriors weren’t always good. They’ve been together for so long. So it just took them time and how they developed everybody. They’ve been together, so they know each other. Milwaukee is the same thing. We’re new. It’s my first year, Tyler’s first year here, Kelly’s first year here, Elie [Okobo], Ayton, Richaun [Holmes], the coaches, everyone’s first year here. It’s crazy. You have to get to know each other. It took a while. It’s a grind, a process.”