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Knicks top Wizards in preseason opener

Knicks center Julius Randle goes to the basket

Knicks center Julius Randle goes to the basket against Wizards forward Rui Hachimura, center, and center Thomas Bryant, right, during the first half of an NBA preseason game on Monday in Washington. Photo Credit: AP/Nick Wass

WASHINGTON — The Knicks have voiced their desire to play tougher this season after a season spent as a punching bag for the league, but even they might not have pictured this type of start for the newly-constructed roster.

Just 13 seconds into the second half Marcus Morris, who said last week that he wanted the team to play bully ball reminiscent of the 1990’s Knicks teams, was ejected for a Flagrant 2 foul, swinging an elbow angrily at Washington’s Justin Anderson and then bopping the ball off Anderson’s head.

Morris smiled broadly and high-fived fans as he headed to the locker room, unaware that he could face a regular season suspension for the infraction. 

“Am I concerned? I mean, if it’s preseason,” Morris said. “I mean I would be concerned if it was regular season. I wouldn’t want to miss any regular season games. If that was regular season I wouldn’t have done that. My team needs me. I’ve got to be smart, set a better example. But like I said in the beginning, we’re not taking any [expletive]. So it is what it is.”

 It’s easy to dismiss it as a preseason game against a team that figures to be among the league’s doormats, but the Knicks will take what they can get. But even in a 104-99 win over the Wizards, the team raised a number of questions before the game even began.

Dennis Smith Jr. was sidelined with a strained lower back, and while he and the Knicks maintain that it is a minor issue, he could not say if he will be back for Friday’s preseason home opener against the Wizards. And with Smith out, coach David Fizdale put out his first starting lineup and began the debate.

Rookie RJ Barrett was in the lineup at shooting guard and Elfrid Payton and Morris were in the starting lineup. Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox, the last two lottery picks before Barrett, came off the bench. Barrett struggled early, missing all four of his three-point attempts and scoring just three points in the first half before recovering to finish with 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting overall - including two free throws to ice the win.

Though you can make an argument for these moves — allowing the younger players to learn and develop in a secondary role — it also raises the same problems as a year ago, that the short-term players are being appeased at the expense of the future.

“All things are on the table,” Fizdale said after the morning shootaround, noting that the lineups could shift in the preseason as he sees different combinations and how they fit together.

The minutes shifted on this night as Morris, who scored 17 points in the first half, was ejected.

“There’s a lot of guys still fighting for jobs so nothing really solidified until the regular season,” Knox said. “We’ve all got preseason to compete, to fight for jobs. But I mean I’m very comfortable coming off the bench. It’s going to be a good spark for us. Some of the guys coming off are really talented. I think it’ll be pretty good for the team.”

At point guard, this might not even be a question if Smith were healthy, but it is puzzling why Fizdale would not give Ntilikina the ball and a starting role. Fizdale made a point of trying to prove to Ntilikina over the summer that he has confidence in him, and when Ntilkina played with France’s national team in the FIBA World Cup, he displayed the confidence in himself on the floor that he has never seemed to have with the Knicks.

But it’s not just confidence. The Knicks have to make a decision on Ntilikina with the deadline looming at the end of the month to pick up his rookie contract option for next season. With a free-agent market next summer that hardly excites, the relative bargain of a rookie deal on Ntilikina would seem to be an easy use of salary cap space as the 21-year-old tries to find his way in the league. Starting him might boost that elusive confidence or raise the trade value around the league if the Knicks decide they’d like to move on from him.

In Payton, the Knicks are putting the ball in the hands of a player who has been on four teams in five seasons and has just this season guaranteed on his contract.

Asked what he has seen in Payton, Fizdale said: “His competitiveness. He just has a serious competitive gene. …[I expect to see him] picking up as much as possible 94 feet. Pushing our pace. Filling up the stat sheets in different ways, rebounds, assists, steals, deflections. Getting into the paint for us, organizing the team. That’s just the template for all of our point guards. I expect the same when I bring Frank in. He just picks up where Elfrid left off.”

Notes & quotes: Bobby Portis was scratched shortly before game time with a left rib contusion. “It’s been bothering me for a couple of days,” he said. “But this morning it really kind of acted up. I wanted push through it but I couldn’t.”

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