OKLAHOMA CITY — Knicks coach David Fizdale shuffled his starting lineup again with high hopes, sending out his third different starting point guard and inserting this season’s lottery pick, Kevin Knox, into the starting five for the first time.
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None of Fizdale’s lineup machinations may make a difference until next season when he can dream of plugging in Kevin Durant and Zion Williamson — although to be fair, both of them are playing with better talent right now. For now, those are just dreams and reality looks like another blowout, this one a 128-103 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
As he made the changes this time he settled for Knox and Emmanuel Mudiay, pulling out his two best perimeter defenders, Frank Ntilikina and Damyean Dotson. The result, predictably, was the Knicks looked helpless to stop the Thunder, even with Russell Westbrook in street clothes. Westbrook’s only appearance on the court came in the second quarter when he leaped off the Thunder bench in celebration as Paul George slammed in a fast break dunk, already toying with the Knicks.
But after the Thunder started the game by connecting on 10 of 16 shots before Ntilikina and Dotson came in, they finished the first quarter hitting 5 of 7 with them on the floor and the Knicks were down, 37-22 after one quarter. Reality is harsh and it's starting to pile up on Fizdale as the Knicks lost their third straight one-sided decision.
“With young teams that’s just how it is,” Fizdale said. “If everybody was a complete player right now I think we’d be in a lot different situation record-wise.”
There are no complete players on this team right now few who provide hints that it’s coming. Tim Hardaway Jr., the teams best scoring threat, was helpless trying to defend Paul George, who poured in 35 points in the first three quarters before getting the rest of the night off. Knox, in his first NBA start, was 5-for-16 shooting, finishing with 15 points. Mitchell Robinson had just one rebound in 18 minutes. Enes Kanter had 19 points off the bench.
“Started off slow just like the other one. No different,” Fizdale said. “But I still want to look at it a little bit more. We may make some more tweaks as we move forward.”
Ntilikina, who was the only player to start every game, although he had been at small forward for the first five games, went to the bench where Fizdale said he will continue to get point guard minutes. Hardaway, Noah Vonleh and Robinson remained in place in the starting lineup.
Coming off an ugly home loss to Orlando, Fizdale had hinted that changes could be coming. He said Tuesday that seeing the team last in the NBA in assists, “It makes me want to yack, to be honest with you. But you know, it can only go up from here.”
“Give them credit,” Hardaway said. “They took advantage of our youth and took advantage of the easy ones that were given to them.”
Ntilikina and Dotson are the two best perimeter defenders, but both had struggled with their shot of late. So in an effort to prod the offense back to a faster pace Fizdale is sacrificing some defense — and hoping that the players inserted can improve the speed of play and also defend. At one point as Steven Adams was scoring with alarming regularity he went over to Fizdale and told him, “Sub [Kanter] out. He doesn’t know how to play defense.” Fizdale said it went in one ear and out the other and Kanter, who is close friends with Adams — spending time with him outside the locker room after the game, said, “He always trolls me, tells me I [stink], all that stuff. But it’s all love in the end.”
But Kanter wasn’t laughing late in the game, upset in the huddle as the Thunder continued to pour it on.
“That’s the second time this season we gave up 128 points,” Kanter said. “We can not be laughing and cheering when we give up that many points.”