In the final moments of a win over the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night, the crowd at Madison Square Garden rose and cheered, briefly raising echoes of the 1990s Knicks teams that the Knicks themselves had announced they would try to mimic this season.
There were chants for defense, celebration when Frank Ntilikina ripped the ball from Luka Doncic and dived to the floor to strip it from Tim Hardaway Jr., even happiness when Marcus Morris deflected an inbounds pass in the final seconds without looking back — a play he joked would have been called pass interference in the NFL.
But that celebration was a rarity on that night. Anger and blame were the primary mood and Kristaps Porzingis was the target, a payback for asking out of what has been a 20-year run of a circus at the Garden.
“I don’t know if it’s fair or not,” Porzingis said afterward. “It’s what they know. It’s what they heard, the fans. I don’t think about that too much. It is what it is.”
It is what they know — the Knicks setting in motion a PR assault even before the ink was dry on the trade, putting the blame on the young star and beacon of hope for the franchise rather than on his growing trepidation about linking his career with the dysfunction that had devastated the organization for decades. So if the fans booed, it was understandable.
The problem for the Knicks right now is that Porzingis is done at Madison Square Garden this season. The sound isn’t likely to change, though.
Before Porzingis’ arrival, the most recent home game had been marked by the fans taunting the Knicks as they fell behind the Cleveland Cavaliers by 30 points. Garden chairman James Dolan retreated out of sight that night for much of the second half, meeting with team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry.
Afterward, Mills and Perry stepped to the microphone and expressed the organization’s displeasure with what was going on. Knicks coach David Fizdale was put on the spot as the team’s decision-makers began to form a circular firing squad.
There already have been isolated “Sell the team” chants and a few “Fire Fizdale” taunts. Mills has been pointed out as the common denominator, along with the owner, in the troubles that have plagued the franchise through a procession of coaching changes and roster turnover.
When Porzingis left late Thursday night and the taunts finally went silent, the Knicks still were 3-9, still an awkwardly constructed roster with a coach on the clock and players searching for their next contracts.
“We’ve got great fans,” Fizdale said. “They’re very passionate. We’ve been on the other side of those boos sometimes, too. I understand. But tonight they really, not only were they booing them, but they showed great appreciation for our effort. That’s the great part about the Garden.”
The boos likely aren’t over at the Garden. It’s just that the targets are back to the ones who aren’t making a one-night appearance.
One more sound
Almost lost among the Porzingis night was that Morris delivered the crucial blow, hitting a tiebreaking three-pointer with 13 seconds remaining to lift the Knicks to a much-needed win. Morris spoke about that sound afterward.
“Yeah, it felt like [the roof was going to explode],” he said. “Somebody called me and said that’s my Knick moment. So I hope it’s not the last one and I’m just trying to keep pushing.”
Chien de ferraille
Thanks to Google translate, we can find out what Frank Ntilikina is aspiring to be. It is the French equivalent of junkyard dog, a phrase that rarely would be used to describe the third-year point guard but one he insists he can be.
“We had a talk about two weeks ago,” Fizdale said. “He just said, ‘Coach, I’ve been through a lot in my two years. I feel like I finally understand what the NBA is about. I know I haven’t shown it yet, but I’m a dog, too.’ It was so cool to hear him say that.”
Ntilikina was passed over at the start of the season, taking on a prominent role only when Dennis Smith Jr. left the team to be with his family after the sudden passing of his stepmother and Elfrid Payton suffered a strained hamstring. But Fizdale said Ntilikina showed him something even before his play on the court by taking a step to prove himself.
“[He] walked right into my office and said, ‘Coach, let’s talk,’ ” Fizdale said. “And that’s how they all are with me. It’s painful to go through how we’re growing but one thing I can honestly say to fans and to everyone who is watching is we’ve got a group of guys that really care and a bunch of guys that are not afraid to come talk to me and communicate. I’ve coached some teams where guys have been disgruntled about their role or whatever and they won’t come say it to you. But these guys, they’ll come right to my office and sit down and let’s talk it out. Him coming into my office, saying that was a big step forward from a maturity standpoint, saying ‘this is what I really want.’ ”
“I think I took a step up in that case,” Ntilikina said “You know me, it’s not the end of anything. I’m just trying to get to the next level again and again. I’m going to build on that and go back to the gym and get better for me and for the team because we have something to do. I think I can really give a lot of energy on this court, show a lot of things. Just got to unlock something. But that will come with work, with practice, with not hesitating doing anything and going and being willing to take the next step.”