With the lights turned down at Madison Square Garden, RJ Barrett stepped into the spotlight at center court and addressed the crowd, punctuating his welcome message to the fans at his new team’s home opener by proclaiming, “I’m proud to be a Knick.”
He then drew the loudest ovation of any of the players as the entire roster was introduced.
Three games into Barrett’s NBA career, cheering for him seems as sure a thing as any for Knicks fans.
By the time the third quarter began Saturday night, there were chants from all corners of the arena begging coach David Fizdale to insert Frank Ntilikina into the game, some boos for Dennis Smith Jr. and a few fans calling for the coach to be fired.
If Ntilikina, the former lottery pick who has totaled three minutes of playing time in the first three games, is the answer, then Fizdale certainly has a lot of questions.
The Knicks started well and then collapsed, with Kemba Walker scoring 32 points in the Celtics’ 118-95 victory. After their summer makeover, the Knicks are off to an 0-3 start.
It wasn’t lost on the fans that Ntilikina did a stellar job on Walker as France knocked the United States out of the FIBA World Cup this summer. But despite the Knicks’ insistence on a defensive-minded brand of bully ball, they showed no resistance as the Celtics manhandled them, right down to 7-6 rookie Tacko Fall entering the game in the final minutes and repeatedly dunking on them.
Barrett scored 26 points, Mitchell Robinson added 17 and Julius Randle had 10 points and 10 rebounds for the Knicks, who took a 13-2 lead and still were up by five at the half. But after committing 26 turnovers Friday night in Brooklyn, the Knicks turned it over 25 times and surrendered 72 second-half points against the Celtics. Afterward, the team convened for a longer-than-usual meeting.
“That was an embarrassing second half that we put forth out there,” Fizdale said. “We gave up 72 points. First time we got punched and didn’t answer the bell. That’s very disappointing. Luckily, our players just owned it. Everyone took blame for their part in that, including me. We’ll come back tomorrow, get to work and get back to getting better.”
There has been little that can be counted on from the latest incarnation of the Knicks. The starting lineup? It was the same for Game 3 as it was in Game 2, but with little assurance that Fizdale won’t continue to tinker as he tries to find five players who fit together.
The last few lottery picks before Barrett? Kevin Knox has played well but is doing it off the bench. Ntilikina has been buried, playing less than three minutes in San Antonio and never getting off the bench against the Nets and Celtics.
“I know I can help my teammates,” Ntilikina said. “But I trust my teammates also to do the work. It’s all about the team. Next-game mentality.”
Smith shot 0-for-3, making him 1-for-11 in three games after shooting 3-for-17 in the preseason.
“We’re three games into it,” Fizdale said. “It’s not like it’s 20 games into the season. But other guys will get opportunities. That’s how it’s going to work. You either perform and you’re getting it done or you’re not.”