Ntilikina’s First Start Spoiled in Portland

5 Thoughts on the Loss:

1. Frank Ntilikina will forever remember this game as his first NBA start. The game, itself, was relatively forgettable for the Knicks as we wind down a fourth straight season eyeing the lottery standings rather than the playoff standings.

But when Ntilikina talks about his first NBA start, he will tell people it happened in Portland and against C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard, who drew two early fouls on the rookie and sent him to the bench about six minutes in.

Considering he was a top-10 pick, there was always an expectation that Ntilikina would move into the starting lineup this season. The fact that it took until his 62nd game, on a team that started 34-year-old Jarrett Jack for most of the season, says a lot about where Ntilikina is when it comes to being ready for the NBA. There’s a lot of work ahead for the 19-year-old and you really have to look closely to find evidence of progress in his development.

The move to start him now, however, was not as much a merit-based promotion than it was a lineup necessity when veteran Courtney Lee missed the game due to personal reasons (prayers up for CLee and his family, who are mourning the loss of a family member).

Ntilikina played 28:03 and — if this doesn’t tell you all you need to know about the game — led all Knicks guards with six points.

The four Knicks who played guard in this game — Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke and Damyean Dotson — combined to shoot 6-for-30 and 0-for-6 from three-point range. So in the usually cold, rainy climate of Portland, the Knicks provided the cold, while the Blazers brought the rain (Lillard hit 8-of-11 from three-point range, McCollum went 5-for-7).

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Ntilikina was 2-for-7 and missed his one attempt from downtown. That puts him on the season at 35.6% from the field in 62 games. He’s shooting 32.4% from three-point range. The bigger concern is that he’s shooting 37% from inside the arc. That has to improve and should with an offseason to work on his body and his shooting.

Since the trade for Mudiay, the Knicks have moved Ntilikina off the ball into a two-guard role which has taken a lot of the ball-handling and play-calling responsibilities off his shoulders. But in that role, you have to be a threat to either knock down open looks or cut and finish at the rim. I would expect him to focus on that in his offseason workouts with trainer Chris Brickley or anyone else he gets with during the summer.

2. Michael Beasley was moved back to the bench and responded with a 16-point game on 8-of-13 shooting, which was his best game since the All-Star break. Beasley was outspoken about the lack of ball-movement with the starters and attributed that to why his production had dropped.

The only notable change, of course, was Mudiay’s move into the starting five.

Mudiay could argue he’s averaging 5.1 assists per game in the nine games he’s played so far with the Knicks, and say he is passing the basketball. And since he was moved into the starting lineup, the Knicks are averaging 23.7 assists, which is higher than their team average going into the All-Star Break.

But here’s where, for once, Wally Szczerbiak is right when it comes to useless stats. That doesn’t really explain Beasley’s frustration. It’s not the lack of assists, it’s how the offense is running now with a green light to the guards to look to score. The other four players essentially have to orbit and react off the dribble-drive efforts by Mudiay, who is showing more and more that when he puts the ball down to drive, he really doesn’t have a plan yet. And if he doesn’t know where he’s going, how is anyone else supposed to know?

Jack, for all his limitations, could organize an offense. He knew when to feed the hot hand and how to get shots for a player who maybe hadn’t seen the ball in a few possessions. Mudiay lacks that kind of important awareness right now.

His six turnovers showed something, however. Not merely a carelessness with the ball, but an attempt to make passes. The issue, again, was the turnovers happened in bail-out situations when he lost confidence in his ability to drive or make a shot.

Mudiay is very raw and the more he plays, the more it shows.

Meanwhile, Burke, who is nursing a sore right (shooting hand) wrist, had his worst shooting game of the season at 2-for-12. It’s a tough time to deal with that injury because there has been enough evidence to promote him to a starters role for a while after Mudiay struggled.

But I got to ask: why did he take the rows out?! Everyone was feeling the Iverson look.

3. Enes Kanter has to view Portland as a special place, though he has never lived there and never played for the Trail Blazers. The first reason is because Kanter recorded his 32nd double-double of the season (18 points, 11 rebounds), which is a new season career-best.

The second reason is because the Trail Blazers are the reason why he has the contract he does and actually may walk away from $18.6 million next year to become a free agent.

At just 25, Kanter has really had a statistically-remarkable season, with averages of 14.3 points and 10.8 rebounds while shooting 60.3% from the field in just 25 minutes per game. If you accelerate his production to a 36-minute per game average, he’s giving you 20 points and 15 rebounds per game. Call him a compiler if you want, but that’s All-Star level stuff.

And believe it or not, while there are obvious concerns about his ability to defend — especially in pick-and-roll — his Defensive Rating (107) is one of the best on the team among the regular rotation players (Kyle O’Quinn is at 105).

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So here’s where you have to ask yourself if you are the Knicks: if he opts out of the $18.6 million, how much is he worth to a franchise that needs talent but is already dealing with Joakim Noah‘s contract?

If you’re wondering how, in today’s age of versatile big men who shoot threes and catch alley-oops, a guy like Kanter can command $18 million in salary, look no further than the Portland Trail Blazers. It was in July 2015 that, as a restricted free agent, he signed a four-year, $70 million offer sheet with Portland and forced the Oklahoma City Thunder to match.

Two years later, the Thunder sent him to the Knicks in the trade for Carmelo Anthony.

So, what do you do with Kanter?

4. I’ll keep this short, but it’s worth updating if only to make you slam your head into your keyboard or whatever device you are reading this on right now: Over the last five games, the Knicks are now -59 in the third quarter.

That’s right, they’re being outscored by almost 12 points per game in the third quarters. And in every single game, they’ve either held a lead or have been within five points.

This is officially the scene from Groundhog Day, where Phil Connors hauls off and punches Ned Ryerson right in the face.

5. Lillard (37) and McCollum combined for 56 points — over half the scoring for the Blazers — and they are a marvel to watch as they work through their sets to find their spots on the floor and the matchup they want. It’s amazing to think that Portland is now third in the West.

Where do we rank these two among the top backcourts in the NBA? They’re averaging 48 points per game as a duo. You’d have a great debate between the Warriors backcourt of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson against the Rockets backcourt of Chris Paul and James Harden as the best right now. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are also a very good pairing in Toronto. We used to think John Wall and Bradley Beal were a great tandem, too, but now the argument is the Wizards may actually be a more efficient team without Wall?

Are we missing anyone else?

If I am ranking top-5 right now, here’s how I see it:

1. CP3/Harden
2. Curry/Klay
3. Lillard/McCollum
4. Lowry/DeRozan
5. Kyrie/Jaylen Brown

Thoughts? Tweet at me: @alanhahn

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