DALLAS — When Frank Ntilikina joined the Knicks as a lottery pick in the summer of 2017, he arrived in New York thinking he was pairing with Kristaps Porzingis to provide an international duo that would lead the team for years to come.
But Ntilikina struggled to get his opportunity and then Porzingis was removed from the equation, first by injury and then by the trade that sent the 7-3 former franchise centerpiece to Dallas last season.
So Friday night presented an odd meeting — the first time the two were in the starting lineup in the same game, even if it was on opposing teams.
Both played well in the first half, with Porzingis scoring 18 points and Ntilikina nine as the Knicks took a 61-57 lead. At one point, Ntilikina tried to hit a driving dunk over Porzingis, who fouled him.
Ntilikina has been the subject of trade rumors himself. The Knicks looked to move him last season and then over the summer but were unable to get back a return worth sending him away.
Ntilikina wasn’t shocked when the Knicks dealt Porzingis. “I guess it’s the business,” he said. “My vets and my people got me aware of it. You don’t really know it until you go through it and have that experience. It’s the league. So many things happen and you got to be ready for everything.”
If it made it an odd night for Ntilikina, it figured to be a crucial test for the Knicks. While Porzingis is finding his footing in Dallas after 20 months spent rehabilitating a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Mavericks are off to a solid start, entering Friday night’s game in first place. The Knicks, though, with a revamped roster pieced together in the wake of the trade, came stumbling in with an NBA-worst 1-7 record.
So if it was going to be a special event, with Porzingis facing his former team for the first time, the Knicks needed to be ready.
“It’s a game,” Porzingis said. “I’m more focused on just playing my game. I haven’t been playing well in the last couple of games. I just want to get going, get back into my groove, no matter who it is against. It just happens to be against my old team.”
“The purpose is just winning,” Marcus Morris said. “I think that’ll be enough for us. He’s here now. We’re moving along with our team. That’s how it goes in this league. The fans feel some type of way — I got a lot of places that feel some type of way about me. It’s hard for me to speak on that.”
Morris said he would be tasked with trying to stop Porzingis. Morris spent the previous two seasons with the Celtics, who had been the first team to come up with a strategy that frustrated Porzingis, using smaller and stronger defenders. With few players able to match Porzingis’ height, Boston coach Brad Stevens first used Marcus Smart to guard Porzingis and then utilized the 6-9 Morris.
“We’ve got good spirit,” Morris said. “We are going to continue to fight. We just had practice yesterday, we cleaned up some things, got everybody on the same page. I just think we had a lot of stuff thrown at us at a time and we got away from what we do. That’s being physical, being tough and protecting the paint.
“What have we got, 74 games left? That’s unheard of. To drop your head right now, it’s not good for the team, not for the culture, but obviously there’s an urgency to win here in New York. I understand that, but there’s 10 new guys. It’s going to take some time. Once we get going, I think it’s going to be really good for us. We can’t dwell on these losses because there are games constantly, constantly, so we’ve got to move on.”