1. These are the hardest games to endure when going through the come up. A game like this proves two things: 1. there’s enough talent and effort on this team to compete in the East and 2. there’s just not enough experience yet in that talent. This wasn’t a moral victory, this was just an education.
And in that fourth quarter, school was in session.
“What it showed,” Kristaps Porzingis said, “was their experience.”
Porzingis admitted mistakes he made throughout his relatively quiet 20-point performance on 7 of 21 shooting. He got into early foul trouble with some unnecessary fouls and never really got into the usual rhythm we’ve seen from him. He is proving to be crafty at drawing fouls when opponents get physical with him, but overall he wasn’t pleased with his game.
“Big learning experience,” he said.
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Meanwhile, LeBron James was dominant, but Dwyane Wade was still sneaky-good at making all the little plays that led to big plays. Wade created turnovers and second-chance opportunities with his offensive rebounding. He also effectively forced rookie Frank Ntilikina out of the game by simply out-foxing the young guard.
“We have to get experience,” Ntilikina said, “and these games will give us a lot to learn from.”
It wasn’t just about the fourth quarter, it was about how the Knicks failed to close-out the third. After they built a 73-50 lead with 2:12 left on a pair of Tim Hardaway Jr. free throws, the Knicks allowed the Cavs — with LeBron on the bench — to go on an 11-2 run to end the half. The deficit was only 15 when the fourth quarter started.
Had the Knicks kept it at 23 or even built it higher, LeBron might not have come back in the game. But once it got to 15, LeBron and Wade smelled blood in the water.
“Just try to make it tough on them,” LeBron explained of his mentality to start the fourth.
The Cavs pressured the ball and bottled up the Knick offense. And at the other end, Kyle Korver turned into Reggie Miller. Everyone in the building could feel it.
One day the Knicks hope to be trending up while LeBron — if he’s still in the East after this season — is trending down. That one day isn’t here yet.
“Respect will be earned,” KP said, “in the future.”
Jeff Hornacek had every reason to be frustrated after watching his team snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The Knicks were up 23. The Garden was rocking. This was going to be a statement win.
“It’s gonna be a lesson for us,” Hornacek said.
2. There’s so many reasons to love Ntilikina. Over the last few weeks, this first round pick that was so much of a mystery to so many Knicks fans has endeared himself. It’s been his defense and his passing that has won fans over. How quickly did the city get out in front of the 19-year-old after LeBron’s contention that the Knicks should have drafted Dennis Smith Jr.? Then when LeBron pulled a bully move on him, Ntilikina responded with a shove.
“He was in my way,” the kid said.
He had six steals in the game — five in the first half — which is the most by a Knicks rookie since Mark Jackson. He also had 7 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists in 24:18. But in the fourth quarter, with Wade and the Cavs defense hounding him at the top of the offense, Ntilikina struggled to run the show.
Ntilikina only took five shots in this game and that’s part of the issue. He’s a terrific passer with good vision, but he needs to learn how to attack the paint using screens and create movement in the defense with dribble penetration. He tends to probe too much and often waits too long for a play to develop. He also needs to tighten up that handle. We’ve seen opposing guards pressure him at halfcourt because there is no respect for his ball-handling skills.
All in due time.
But that’s all you need to see to recognize that we have to temper our expectations of this kid. I was getting questions from fans about when the Knicks will move Ntilikina into the starting lineup and the answer is not anytime soon. He’s just not ready. Not yet.
Remember, he’s 19.
But the Knicks still need someone to run the point. Jarrett Jack has done a nice job filling the starting point guard role. But if the Knicks want to be serious contenders for a playoff spot, they’ll need more than just 2 points on 1 for 5 shooting from that position. You have to expect that GM Scott Perry will be scouring the trade market for point guard help over the next few weeks.
3. Here’s my hot take: LeBron set this whole thing up. As much as he tried to mock the New York press, by saying it blows everything out of proportion, LeBron was the one who even admitted his line about Dennis Smith Jr. would create headlines. Riding the New York City subway back to the hotel after shootaround was also a pre-planned excursion to add some tension.
I think he wanted to manufacture some drama for this game. He wanted a hostile environment and some animosity. And for three quarters, it looked like his plan backfired, because the Cavs right now are frauds. They are a really, really bad basketball team that doesn’t defend and — truth be told — won this game because Korver got hot from three and the Knicks didn’t have a point guard to control their offense. Korver made some ridiculous shots in that fourth quarter and the front-running Cavs rode the momentum of those shots and LeBron’s greatness.
Maybe this game wakes them up and gets them to play harder on defense like we saw in that fourth quarter. On the other hand, it could also give them a false sense of hope. They still have to get Isaiah Thomas back before we have any idea what they’re going to be as a contender.
LeBron clearly just wanted to put a charge into the game and he got it. The atmosphere in The Garden was electric and for a while there in the second quarter it felt like the old days.
“This is the best basketball arena in the world to play in,” LeBron said.
It’s maddening to lose to him on this stage, especially when he glares at everyone along the front row following his big three-pointer to give the Cavs the lead for good in the final 90 seconds. That was very Jordanesque.
And I hate admitting that.
4. The biggest issue for Hornacek’s Knicks is the same issue that haunted them often last season and the season before that and, it seems, the season before that …
The Knicks allowed the Cavs to make 9 of 17 from beyond the arc in that fourth quarter. Now five of them came from Korver, who went from off to automatic, but throughout the game, they were losing shooters only to see the Cavs brick their looks. Things suddenly changed in the fourth quarter. In today’s game, 20-point leads are no longer safe against teams that shoot the three.
The Knicks right now are allowing opponents to shoot 37.1% from deep, which is the 12th-highest in the league. But teams are shooting a league-high 34 three-point attempts per game against the Knicks and making 12.6 of them, which is the second-most in the NBA.
Hornacek felt it’s the result of defenders getting “sucked in” to help on drives, which leaves shooters open on the perimeter. It’s hard to stay locked on your guy, especially if he’s a flamethrower like Korver when you see someone driving into the paint. But LeBron, like James Harden, thrives on the instinct to get into the paint to draw help and then destroy you with amazingly accurate kick-outs for three.
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5. After all that, we have to wait five months until the Knicks and Cavs play again?! Someone in the NBA scheduling department thought it would be a great idea to have these teams play a home-and-home to end the regular season.
Think those Enes Kanter “king, queen, princess” quotes will be forgotten by then?