5 thoughts on the win:
1. When Dennis Smith Jr. was in New York last spring, he already had LeBron James in his ear. He already had the influence telling him to avoid the Knicks because of Phil Jackson‘s Triangle.
So when it came time for his pre-draft workout, Smith was in the awkward position of saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.” When the team wanted to give his surgically-repaired knee a closer look, he was advised to decline with the knowledge that it would create enough of a red flag to keep him from being at the top of the Knicks’ draft chart.
Yet on draft night, there was still a heated debate in the war room over the final decision with the No. 8 pick. Smith seemed the obvious choice, despite the red flags. Donovan Mitchell was somewhat of a gamble, but there was some support for him.
In the end, no one could deny Frank Ntilikina was the most intriguing.
[Watch Knicks-Bulls Wednesday on MSG & Download Free on MSG GO]
Here’s what the Smith/Ntilikina debate boils down to: Can you take an offensive-minded player and get him to buy into defense or can you take a defensive-minded player and teach him how to be more aggressive on offense?
That’s the mission for both teams in the years to come.
Smith has had impressive moments — and highlights — so far this season, but his defense has been a major issue, as it usually is for most rookies. Ntilikina has had some moments, as well, but he almost needs to be reprogrammed on offense.
In their first NBA matchup, Ntilikina had the better box score and, most importantly, the win. But neither factored in crunch time.
Ntilikina had 7 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks and a steal in 25:12, but shot 3 for 8.
Smith had 11 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 steals in 24:33, but shot 5 for 14.
They are completely different players, so comparisons are impossible to make. Smith is your prototypical scoring guard with a great first step and explosive athleticism (which is exciting), but he gets lost in the pick-and-roll defense and doesn’t have a good grasp of basic defensive fundamentals. Ntilikina is a throwback to the days of defensive awareness and team concept basketball (which you absolutely love about him) but has not shown a quick first step or any explosiveness to the rim that is critical in the NBA.
Both are a work-in-progress with a lot of potential.
So let’s just say it’s way too early to decide whether or not LeBron gave Smith the best advice or the Knicks made the right choice at No. 8.
2. There were several reasons why this was the perfect night for the Mavs to honor Derek Harper with a jersey retirement ceremony. Think about the kind of player Harper was during his NBA career, which included two-plus years with the Knicks: tough, hard-nosed, defensive-minded and clutch.
If Harper played hockey, he would have been a Selke candidate every year. (That’s the award the NHL gives to the best two-way forwards, who excel at offense and defense). Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said he hoped Smith would learn something from Harper’s defensive mentality. Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek wants Ntilikina to see Harper as a player to emulate.
Ntilikina, at 6-foot-5 and with the defensive mindset, could use Harper as a template. When you look at Ntilikina and his personality, I often think Walt Frazier without the swagger (and the scoring mentality). They’re both similarly built and relatively quiet players on the court.
Back to Harper: he spoke with Rebecca Haarlow before the game about his time in New York and he admitted he probably would still be in the city if the Knicks had won the championship in 1994. The writers from that era all agree Harper would have been the Finals MVP if the Knicks won it.
You would then have to believe that his No. 11 might be already hanging from The Garden rafters, despite his brief stint here so late in his career.
3. Speaking of point guards, Jarrett Jack had 12 points and 8 assists in the win as he celebrated some financial security. Before the game, the Knicks made the move to fully guarantee his contract for the remainder of the season.
Jack signed a non-guaranteed deal for the veteran’s minimum just before training camp in what was, essentially, a tryout. He had endured two years of trying to come back from a torn ACL and, at 34, this likely would be his last shot at continuing his NBA career. Four games into the season, he was named the starting point guard.
“It feels good, knowing where I came from,” Jack told Haarlow on the court after the game. “Rehabbing from that torn ACL, the ups and downs, the setbacks and all that stuff.”
Jack may not finish the season as the starting point guard. He may even find himself out of the rotation at some point, but the Knicks wanted to reward what he was able to do for them at the start of the season (remember, they were 0-3 before he stepped into the lineup) and also for his mentoring of Ntilikina. Jack’s value to the team cannot be understated.
4. Speaking of understated value, Kyle O’Quinn has an opt-out this summer and is setting himself up to get a huge raise in free agency. He has been an example of great efficiency among reserve big men in the NBA and, yes, there is a huge need for players like this on playoff teams.
Against the Mavs, O’Quinn had 15 points and 11 rebounds in just 22:38. He was so effective down the stretch that Hornacek played him through crunch time and admitted he is going through a debate between matching small-ball lineups or going big to play power-ball against the small-ball (something we discussed in the previous blog).
He and Enes Kanter combined to score 28 points and grab 29 rebounds.
On the season, O’Quinn’s Per-36 numbers are among the best of any regular rotation player off the bench in the NBA: 14.8 points, 12.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes. He’s shooting 59% from the field this season.
There was a report that teams are already calling the Knicks about O’Quinn’s availability before the Feb. 8 trade deadline. As we said, he does have an opt-out, but can the Knicks afford to trade him in the midst of a playoff push?
5. OK, I need a ruling here. My friend Michael Kay often rants about the “jinx” factor in sports. Fans get angry when an announcer, such as Kay, does his job by saying a pitcher has a no-hitter going or a batter is on a hitting streak.
That brings us to this game, where Mike Breen — who, by the way, was classmates with Kay at Fordham — didn’t hesitate to tell us about Courtney Lee‘s free throw streak just before his critical shots in the final seconds to ice the game.
WHAT?! BREEN WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!
Lee, who leads the NBA with 96.1% shooting from the line, promptly hit both.
He then hit two more before the final buzzer to make it a perfect 4 for 4 in the game and 43 straight, which is now one shy of tying Chris Duhon’s franchise record. We’ll see if he does it on Wednesday night against the Bulls at The Garden, but don’t ask Hornacek about it.
“We’re not talking about it! No, no, no!” Hornacek said with a smile. “He’s a great free-throw shooter.”
Clearly, he believes in the jinx.
For those wondering, if Lee does match or break the franchise record, he still has a ways to go for the NBA record. That was set by Michael Williams of the Timberwolves in 1993 when he hit 97 straight. That streak, however, spanned two seasons. As for single-season record? Williams made his final 84 attempts of the 1992-93 season.
[Watch Knicks-Bulls Wednesday on MSG & Download Free on MSG GO]