Hardaway, Knicks “Wanted” This Game

KNICKS 106, JAZZ 101

1. I hated this game for the first 41 minutes and 18 seconds. I don’t care what Wallyball tweeted before we went on the air for the Post Game show, there was not a soul among us who were content with good vibes.

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This was the proverbial trap game. This was the hangover. After an emotional Battle Royale on Monday night with LeBron and the Cavs, there was just no juice in the building for Knicks-Jazz. From the very first play of the game — a scripted alley-oop for local kid Donovan Mitchell — this just felt like a trudge through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel on the weekend (by the way, do we really still have another year of that mess? I swear, sometimes I think it might be faster to swim across the East River than to drive).

This may not have been the Cavs or even an Eastern Conference opponent. But this was a critical win.

Why?

Consider that a loss would have put the Knicks back at .500 at 7-7. The next game is Friday at Toronto against a very good Raptors (9-5) team. The Knicks have only won once in the last six visits to the Six. After that comes the Clippers (5-8) at The Garden on Monday and another meeting with the Raptors, at MSG, on Thanksgiving Eve.

Here’s where the schedule gets tricky. The Knicks fly Thanksgiving night to Atlanta and play the Hawks (3-12) on Black Friday. They’ll fly a just-under three hour trip to Houston to play James Harden and the Rockets (11-4), in a ridiculously inconsiderate road back-to-back against a Houston team that will have been home all week. Oh, and that will be the third game in four nights, with the free day being Thanksgiving.

Point is, the schedule was warning you not to lose this game. Fortunately, the Knicks made just enough plays in the fourth quarter to ensure they didn’t.

2. The ‘Timmy Shimmy’ is a thing. Tim Hardaway Jr. breaks it out after a big shot and he made some big ones in scoring 14 of his team-high 26 points in the fourth quarter. He drilled a three-pointer with 32.5 seconds left to finally put the game away after a wild scramble for a loose ball won by Doug McDermott. And, that shot took a lot of guts when you consider Hardaway Jr. missed badly on a heat-check dagger attempt with 1:47 left, and the Knicks up six.

You gotta want it,” he told Rebecca Haarlow in his walk-off interview. “You gotta want it, man.”

It’s great to see Hardaway Jr. talking and playing with that much confidence right now. At the start of the regular season, he looked weighed down by his own expectations (and maybe his wallet) after returning to New York as a free agent. Over the first four games of the season, he averaged under 10 points a game and was shooting 26.5% from the field.

In the 10 games since? 21 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists per game and shooting 45.6% from the field.

And suddenly no one is talking about that contract anymore.

3. Jeff Hornacek is sticking with a nine-man rotation on most nights, but his combinations can vary from game-to-game. Wednesday night in the fourth quarter, he stayed with a defensive group that finally put a stop to Utah’s easy offense and three-point barrage.

That group was Frank Ntilikina and Courtney Lee in the backcourt with Doug McDermott, Lance Thomas, and Kyle O’Quinn up front. They are versatile enough to switch on all pick-and-roll situations, and it’s a smart group that communicates those switches well. That strategy definitely changed the game in the second half.

Frank Ntilikina reflects on playing late in the game against the Jazz and coming up big with key buckets in the fourth quarter.

Midway through the quarter, Hornacek brought Hardaway Jr. and Kristaps Porzingis back into the game and went with a lineup he’s starting to favor in closing games: Ntilikina-Hardaway-Lee-McDermott-Porzingis. While it’s true KP said he prefers to play the four, Hornacek admits he likes him better at center late in games because it pulls most of the defense out of the paint. KP didn’t have a great night but still managed 22 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks in 36 minutes.

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Oh, and what we’re already taking for granted just 14 games into the season is the fact that the Knicks are winning the majority of their games with a 19-year-old point guard playing most or all of the fourth quarter minutes.

No, Ntilikina isn’t exactly orchestrating an offense in these situations (he failed to record an assist for the first time this season), but he is a factor in late-game defense. He had a steal in the fourth quarter against the Jazz and was a +10 in 12 minutes. He defended fellow rookie Donovan Mitchell, who went for 17 points in the first half and finished with 19. In the fourth quarter, Mitchell was 1 for 5 and a -9 in 9:56.

In 94 minutes on the court in the fourth quarter this season, Ntilikina is a +36.

There is still quite a bit for the rookie to learn, mainly on offense (i.e.: how to attack the basket, look for your shot, don’t pick up your dribble, tighten up that handle). But these are valuable experiences and they’re not coming at the expense of winning.

4. There was some concern regarding Courtney Lee’s hamstring late in the game. He was seen shaking his leg and holding the back of his leg in the final minute, though he continually waved to the bench that he did not want to come out of the game.

Lee has been an important part of the leadership foundation of this group and is also getting it done at both ends of the floor. He had 19 points and made 3 of 5 from downtown in the game to go along with 7 rebounds and 3 assists in a game-high 39:25. But, with a game looming Friday against DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors, there was some concern about Lee’s hamstring after the game.

“It looked like he tweaked his hammy,” Hornacek said.

Jeff Hornacek describes what the Knicks did much better in the second half compared to the first in their comeback victory over the Jazz.

But Rebecca Haarlow texted us during the Post Game Show that she talked with Lee and he told her he was bumped in the back on a play late in the game. Rebecca tells us he was not concerned about an injury.

After the game, he told reporters he took a “knee to the butt bone” and had some cramping. Lee insisted he would be ready to play in Toronto.

5. This game ended a brief three-game homestand, but there are still two more home games to come next week to complete a stretch of 10 home dates over a span of 12 games. By Thanksgiving, the Knicks will have played 12 of their 41 home games. That’s just about 30% of their home schedule completed with five months still left in the season. So very soon — have you seen January? — we’re going to be doing a lot of road games.

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But, do you think the schedule actually worked in the Knicks’ favor early on here? With a young team, there is a comfort to playing at home and a positive energy has certainly developed between the players and the crowd. The Knicks are 7-3 at home and three of those seven wins are in the form of double-digit comebacks that might have had the benefit and momentum of the home crowd.

So let’s remember that from late December through early February, when the Knicks are on the road for 16 out of 20 games.

Actually, I’m looking forward to it. You know why? Because in our carpool arrangement, Wallyball drives for road games.