It was the final days of last year’s 17-65 season when out of necessity the Knicks turned to Mario Hezonja to serve as the point guard for a game in Houston. The good news was that Hezonja produced a triple-double. The bad news? The Knicks lost by 24 points.
The Knicks may not be far off from that as they head to Orlando to face the Magic Wednesday night.
The team was already without Dennis Smith Jr., who has gone home to North Carolina to be with his family following the sudden passing of his stepmother Sunday. Then Elfrid Payton, who has started the last three games at point guard, suffered a strained right hamstring in the third quarter Monday and was unavailable to return. Payton has already been ruled out for Wednesday's game.
That left Frank Ntilikina, who had played just three minutes combined over the first three games of the season. Ntilikina played 22 minutes Monday in the Knicks' win over the Bulls and although his numbers weren’t impressive — 0-for-6 shooting with two assists and three turnovers — David Fizdale insisted he was happy with what he saw.
“Fantastic. Frank’s minutes — it didn’t matter," Fizdale said after the game. "His minutes were fantastic. He guarded. He set the tone defensively. He made some nice plays to set people up. He got us organized. The shots will fall for him. The thing I’m proud of is how he kept himself ready. Like I knew he was. Every day he wasn’t playing, he was in the gym getting a sweat going. ‘Just let me know coach, I’m ready when you need me.’ I was really proud of his effort.”
Defending at the point is what the Knicks really need — and arguably needed when Ntilikina was on the bench the previous two games against Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker. Orchestrating the offense rarely has come from the point guards in the early portion of the season for the Knicks. Rookie RJ Barrett has taken some of the load as the point guard.
The Knicks ran the offense through power forward Julius Randle on Monday as they have in other games and it has produced mixed results, or at least did until the second half against the Bulls. Randle turned the ball over eight times, giving him 19 turnovers in the last three games. But he also had a team-high five assists, along with Barrett, to go with 13 points and 14 rebounds. He made two kick-out passes to Bobby Portis in the corner in the final minutes for three-pointers to give the Knicks their first lead of the night and then to stretch the lead.
“It takes time,” Fizdale said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. Guys understanding the spacing and where people are going to be and just being willing to make that play. Seeing that play. We watched a ton of film with Julius. We put him in a ton of situations in practice so he can start seeing those outlets when people are really loading into him. He’s going to get better and better because his agenda is pure. I always feel like guys improve when they’re about the team.
“How many times are you going to run your head against a wall? He finally said, ‘Wait a minute. I’m running into traffic right now. I’ve just got to move the ball. It’s not going to be me tonight.’ That’s a big step for him to do that.”
Notes & quotes: Reggie Bullock, who has yet to be active this season while recovering from spinal surgery, will not be with the team after the death of his sister on Monday. Knicks president Steve Mills said in a statement, “Our Knicks family is deeply saddened by the sudden passing of two of our players’ close family members. At times like this, we are reminded that life is bigger than basketball. Our thoughts are with them and their families.”