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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Tricky LeBron James got into Knicks’ heads

James’ critical remarks about rookie Frank Ntilikina distracted them.

LeBron James of the Cavaliers said he didn't

LeBron James of the Cavaliers said he didn't mean to disrespect rookie Frank Ntilikina of the Knicks. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

Don’t believe him. LeBron James knew exactly what he was doing.

James knew the Knicks were playing well. And he knew his Cleveland team wasn’t. So on Saturday, he did what all great players do: He looked for an extra edge. He looked for a way to get inside the Knicks’ heads and take them out of the incredible game they have been playing. And it worked.

By verbally attacking Frank Ntilikina, the Knicks’ youngest and most vulnerable player, James made the Knicks care about beating him more than they did about playing their game when it came down to crunch time. The result was a painful 104-101 loss to the Cavaliers on Monday night at Madison Square Garden.

Kristaps Porzingis may be the league’s up-and-coming superstar, but James is still the best player in the game. He drove that home with 1:23 left when he stepped back and hit a three-pointer over the 7-3 Porzingis to give the Cavs the lead for good.

Considering that the Knicks led by 23 in the third quarter, it’s hard for their fans not to be annoyed by the way it ended. Still, someday they may look at this game as a turning point.

They shouldn’t be angry at LeBron, they should be slapping him on the back. Because by bothering to tweak the Knicks before coming to town, he was acknowledging that they have taken a step to the next level.

The Knicks now are a worthy enough opponent that James wants to get under their skins.

The Cavs, who can’t be fairly judged until injured Isaiah Thomas returns, have been struggling. Don’t think that wasn’t in the back of James’ mind before he decided to take a swipe at a 19-year-old rookie.

Sure, he has taken swipes at the Knicks and their management before, but this was different. This seemed to have a level of planning not seen in recent years.

It all began Saturday night after the Cavaliers beat the Mavericks. James, out of nowhere, said the Knicks should have taken Mavericks point guard Dennis Smith Jr. over Ntilikina with the No. 8 pick in this year’s draft.

On Sunday, the Knicks predictably defended their young point guard at practice, with Enes Kanter saying, “This is my rookie. This is my team. This is my organization. I cannot just let him disrespect him like that.”

On Monday morning, James explained that his comments were nothing personal against Ntilikina, of course. He was merely taking another shot at departed Knicks president Phil Jackson. So be it if Ntilikina was collateral damage.

“I wasn’t throwing shade at Frank at all, for people that got their pants in bunches and things of that nature in New York, looking for any controversy here,” James said.

He said he was clarifying for “people who just live in the box and for Enes Kanter, who’s always got something to say. I don’t know what’s wrong with him.”

For the first time in a long time, there seems to be more right than wrong with the Knicks. Porzingis is headed to what should be the first of many All-Star Games. Ntilikina is showing a lot of toughness for a young guard, enough toughness that he wasn’t afraid to chest- bump James at the end of the first quarter. The team is developing a supporting cast of likable role players such as Kanter, the rebounding specialist who seems to have everyone’s back.

In a crazy weak Eastern Conference, they have a chance to be more than decent this season. And believe it or not, that’s something James would like to see.

“It’s great when the Knicks, the Celtics and the Lakers are great all at the same time,’’ he said. “It’s best for our league.”

New York Sports