HOUSTON — You would think that in the course of compiling a 15-64 record with three games left — clinching the league’s worst record — the Knicks would have hit rock bottom. But as they worked out Friday morning, rock bottom seemed like just a stopping point on the way to a gaping abyss.
Emmanuel Mudiay was ruled out with a sore left shoulder, joining Dennis Smith Jr., Frank Ntilikina, Kadeem Allen and Allonzo Trier on the sideline. That left only Billy Garrett, who was called up from the G League on Tuesday and had 12 minutes of NBA experience, as the lone point guard on the roster. So David Fizdale announced a lineup with 6-8 Mario Hezonja starting at point guard against the Rockets.
Hezonja had been collecting DNPs before getting a chance to start at power forward against his former team in Orlando two nights earlier. But after confidently asserting that he had played point guard in his rookie year and “before, it was my natural position,” he amassed his first career triple-double with 16 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists Friday night. And as one might have expected, it mattered little as the Knicks lost to the Rockets, 120-96, after falling behind by as many as 42 points.
When a reporter mentioned before the game that it was not his natural position, Hezonja snapped, “How do you know? Do you watch basketball?” He said he would like to play point guard more but just hadn’t pushed it because the Knicks were deep at the position most of the season, adding, “I’m not going to steal somebody’s job.”
The Knicks’ glut of point guards still has left them with rumors of Kyrie Irving coming as a free agent. Asked if this sort of performance could help him in his own free agency, Hezonja smiled and said, “I guess, so they don’t have to get a point guard, right? Kyrie, right? Yeah, that’s me now. Yeah, sure. Let’s see what happens, but definitely. As I said, I’m not going to stop playing or quit just because it’s the last couple of games and we have a bad record this year. It’s all development. We still come in and we still treat it as a developing game. You still can develop guys and figure out something new in my case tonight. So we’ll keep going.”
The confidence in the morning was palpable. Fizdale spoke his usual encouraging words about a great workout and a solid plan, and Hezonja challenged anyone who doubted his ability to play point guard against the backcourt of James Harden (26 points) and Chris Paul. And the reality is that this is how you chase down the worst record in franchise history.
“Yeah, losing definitely sucks,” said Lance Thomas, the one member of the current roster who was part of the 17-65 train wreck that set the franchise mark for futility in the 2014-15 season. “Nobody in any competitive setting likes to lose. But it takes a tough-minded individual to keep focus and to make sure things are done the right way to change things around. Myself, I’ve just been constantly working and pushing the guys to have the mindset I have.''
While Fizdale and the Knicks’ front office have tried to downplay just how bad things have gotten in a season that began as a player development campaign and turned into a shedding or sitting of anyone who could push the team to forfeit a spot among the worst teams heading into the NBA Draft lottery, Thomas doesn't want to be part of another worst.
“Honestly, it got to a point where we were losing games but we weren’t really paying attention to the record because we were just going so hard in practice and not focusing on things that were a downer for the morale of the team,” he said. “But more so focusing on each day that we were together and were working. That was more important to maximize each day.”
Thomas said the only lesson he learned from the previous struggles was: “Never quit.”
At a point when taking the court seems like a cruel challenge, Fizdale said before the game, "I love it. This is what it’s all about. You kidding me? These guys have been great all year. [Mudiay] is crawling in here right now because he’s just given me everything that he’s got.These guys are excited about this game. We talked about these games no matter what, are really important for us. And so, our approach has been fantastic. Our shootarounds have been great. Film sessions have really been sharp. I think these guys want to come in here and give themselves a chance to win.”
Notes & quotes: Fizdale said he holds out hope that Smith or Mudiay can make it back for one of the final three games, but he doubts that Noah Vonleh or Trier can play again this season . . . The Knicks clinched a tie for the worst record in the league when they lost to the Rockets, and when the Suns subsequently beat the Pelicans in overtime, that honor belonged to the Knicks. The Suns moved to 19-61, the same record as the Cavaliers, and the Knicks can do no better than 18-64. The Suns swept the two-game series against the Knicks, but if they had finished in a two-way tie for the worst record, a coin flip would have determined which team finished with the worst mark.