Someday soon, the Knicks might decide the future is now and insert Kevin Knox into the starting lineup, put Frank Ntilikina back in the rotation and move a step closer to the team they think they’ll be next season.
But for now, at the 25-game mark — at which point David Fizdale has said he would hope to settle on a starting lineup for the long run — the Knicks are still playing to scrape out every win they can. Fortunately for fans looking ahead to next summer’s NBA Draft, they haven’t been able to win many.
After a stirring overtime win over the Bucks on Saturday, the Knicks squandered an 11-point lead Monday night and fell to the Wizards, 110-107, at the Garden.
Fizdale put out the same starting lineup for the eighth straight game, a grouping that includes Tim Hardaway Jr. (who had 20 points) and four players who will be free agents at season’s end.
Asked before the game if that signals that this is the lineup for the remainder of the season, Fizdale laughed. “Don’t hold me to it,” he said. “I don’t know. Right now, we’re in a good place where guys are starting to settle in and play some decent basketball individually. We’re playing a little bit better collectively. So for right now, yeah, I think we’re starting to move into another direction, starting to get at least a little rhythm to the groups that we’re putting out there.
“But again, I don’t like to put a cap on anything. We have too many guys, too many young guys. I’ve got guys sitting right there on the fringe that I know are chomping at the bit to get back in there. So I’m not going to clip the competitiveness and have those guys feeling like they can’t get back in the rotation, because that’s not the facts. They can.”
The player the Knicks would like to see claim a starting job is Knox, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2018 draft. Mario Hezonja is starting in front of him now, and while he provided a highlight Saturday with a breakaway dunk and a controversial step-over of Giannis Antetokounmpo, he didn’t score another basket in that game. Knox, meanwhile, scored a season-high 26 points off the bench.
Knox followed that up by struggling through a 3-for-11, eight-point performance against the Wizards. Asked if he had considered putting him back in the starting lineup, Fizdale said, “Not yet, no. Thought about it, but I’m not ready to do it yet. I want to get him comfortable, get him in a rhythm, stop moving him around.”
The Knicks led 61-52 at halftime, but the Wizards began the third quarter with a 28-8 run and outscored the Knicks 34-19 in the quarter, with Bradley Beal scoring eight of his 27 points. “We didn’t run anything in the third quarter,” Fizdale said. “Couldn’t get us into any offense. Credit to them, they really took us out of our stuff. They turned up the defense. They took that third quarter from us.”
The Knicks fell behind 107-92 with 3:33 left but ran off 12 straight points to close the gap to three before John Wall hit a wide-open three-pointer with 11 seconds left.
After starting the first 14 games of the season, Ntilikina did not play for the second straight game, even with Trey Burke sidelined with a sprained right knee. Courtney Lee, 33, who missed the first 24 games with a neck injury, could not convert a field goal in his 16 minutes — including missing a breakaway layup in the final minutes — until he hit a three-pointer with three-tenths of a second left.
“I have empathy for a lot of those things that they care about,” Fizdale said. “But ultimately at the end of the day, I’ve got to make the decision that’s best for the group. But I do, I spend time thinking about what each individual’s going through, where they are, how they feel about the situation they’re in, how do I get them to a place where they feel better about where they’re at and give them a pathway to grow.
“Yeah, I spend a ton of time on that. But my No. 1 priority is trying to get the team to a place where everyone, or the bulk of the group, feels like they can play in a good way.”