The Knicks had lost five straight. Their young players looked overwhelmed, bordering on lost. And veteran Enes Kanter was having a terrible time hiding how unhappy he was about not being in the starting unit.
Of the three big immediate problems coach David Fizdale had entering Tuesday night’s game against the Western Conference-leading Portland Trail Blazers, only one could be possibly solved with a quick fix.
And so, depending on your perspective, Fizdale either showed a renewed interest in Kanter or tossed the big man a small bone. Whatever the case, Kanter started his first game since the fifth game of the season and the Knicks had one of their better efforts of the season.
Of course, it wasn’t good enough to beat a star-studded Portland squad that has a chance to win it all this season. But the Knicks did manage to look respectable in their 118-114 loss, which is more than you can say about most of their recent defeats.
More than once this season, Fizdale has said that player development is the most important objective. The Knicks, however, badly needed a win or at least a decent showing entering the game. For the first time since the fifth game of the season, Fizdale started a lineup that did not include a rookie. That move served a dual purpose of giving the Knicks the best shot at keeping pace with the Trail Blazers, while also mollifying Kanter, who had fired off a series of strange tweets since he was taken out of the starting lineup.
While Kanter didn’t play a big role Tuesday, scoring only seven points and grabbing five rebounds, the young players looked more comfortable coming off the bench. Kanter said that Fizdale told him about the lineup change on Monday. And while Kanter on the surface said all the right things about being willing to do whatever the team needs, it was clear he was happy to be fulfilling those needs from the starting lineup.
“We just need to win a game,” Kanter said before the game. “First unit, leading the second unit. Whatever, we just need to go out and win games. That’s the most important thing. The coach is always trying to change something. He’s figuring out what’s best for us . . . . It’s all about winning. It doesn’t matter if we’re the oldest or youngest.”
Fizdale has used six different lineups in the first 18 games and started 12 different players. Against Portland, the Knicks began the game with Emmanuel Mudiay, Tim Hardaway Jr., Mario Hezonja, Noah Vonleh and Kanter on the floor.
Kanter, who began the season as the starting center, had established himself as much of a star as one can be on a lottery-bound development project like the Knicks. Yet, just five games into the season, Fizdale replaced him with Mitchell Robinson, a player many thought would be seeing big minutes in the G League this season after the Knicks drafted him in the second round.
Kanter will be a free agent at the end of this season, after opting into the final season of his contract during the summer. And while he has actually played about the same amount of minutes coming off the bench, he has been grumpy about not being a starter, especially when the Knicks continue to lose game after game.
Fizdale said before the game that he would like to settle on a starting unit by Game 25. At this point, Kanter isn’t about to predict where he will be anytime in the future.
“I’m probably going to get back with the second unit later and everything,” he said with a half laugh. “This is our team. We’re just going to go out and play basketball.”