Relentless Knicks Start Season On Solid Ground

David Fizdale‘s first impression as Knicks head coach was a good one. Despite a nervous start that saw his team trail 10-2 early, the rest of the game was exactly what he said his team would be this season: young, fast and relentless.

The Knicks ran with 11 points on the fast break, they got after it on defense (12 steals, 6 blocks) and they hounded the Hawks guards, especially rookie Trae Young (4 turnovers) for 94 feet.

“Every night,” Fizdale said of the pressure defense he’s demanding of his team. “Every single night.”

It may sound exhausting and, considering how fast the schedule comes at you, unsustainable. But Fizdale believes this is the one area the Knicks must perform consistently to be competitive every night.

“We’ve got multiple guys we can throw in,” he said, “and when guys get tired, we put another guy in.”

Everyone from Trey Burke (21 minutes) to Ron Baker (27 minutes), Allonzo Trier (26 minutes) and Frank Ntilikina (team-high 34 minutes) took turns defending the ball up the court. The Hawks recorded 24 turnovers in the game and struggled mightily against the active defense.

“We have to be scrappy,” Fizdale said.

With his father in attendance, Tim Hardaway Jr. (31 points) led the offense, which will be without All-Star Kristaps Porzingis for the foreseeable future while he continues to rehab from ACL surgery. Hardaway played the role of the go-to scorer as he had 16 of his 22 first-half points in a second quarter that turned into a wild party at The Garden. The Knicks exploded for 49 points in the second quarter, which wound up one point more than the Hawks had for the entire half.

Trier, who we remind you went undrafted, went off for 15 points, including a dunk down the lane that sent former Knick Nate Robinson – a three-time Slam Dunk champion – onto the court just to celebrate. It was a wild scene at The Garden that felt like a revival — well, it was, because BASKETBALL IS BACK — and even Fizdale admitted he got caught up in it.

“I didn’t mean to celebrate,” Fizdale said. “That was not good class on my part. But I’m still a fan of the game and some things happen in a game sometimes and you just go WHOA.”

Hardaway Jr. spoke proudly of Trier’s game and that punctuation mark of a dunk.

[Coverage Of Knicks-Nets Begins Friday at 7 PM On MSG & MSG GO.]

“To come here not being drafted, he has a chip on his shoulder,” Hardaway said. “That’s what we like.”

The 12 for 33 from downtown was a pleasant surprise. The 126 points and blowout win was fun. But it was the effort on defense that felt like a throwback to the Rick Pitino teams from the late 1980s. That group was also young, but they played hard and The Garden quickly fell in love with that team.

One thing that was notable last night wasn’t in the celebration but, instead, in the early stages of the game when the Knicks couldn’t make a shot and looked incredibly jittery, was the crowd. Most fans understand what this season is about (development) and most fans have been asking for exactly this for years. So it was funny to me when there were turnovers and badly missed shots early how the crowd didn’t react with the usual groans and boos. Instead, it was like they were encouraging the young Knicks to keep trying.

It was like a building filled with….parents.

While Trier had a terrific debut, lottery pick Kevin Knox carried over his shooting issues from the preseason. But that didn’t faze him at all. Knox put up 16 shots in 24 minutes and finished with 10 points.

Mitchell Robinson, the third rookie in the opening night lineup, lasted only a minute before he rolled his ankle. He was available to return, but Noah Vonleh (12 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists in 16 minutes) played so well in his place, Fizdale stayed with him.

And then there was Ntilikina, last year’s lottery pick who is hoping to establish himself this season. Fizdale moved him into the starting lineup at the small forward spot in place of Knox and then proudly raved about his game. Ntilikina had 5 points on 2 of 7 shooting with 5 rebounds, 3 steals, 1 block and 1 assist.

“He got after it,” Fizdale said. “He made it tough. Every catch, every entry pass, every shot was contested. Every rotation was right. You know, he’s an elite defender.”

It was a good opening night. A guy from Long Island got the crowd going when he drilled a halfcourt shot to win $10,000. The Knicks rode that energy to a blowout win and Lance Thomas presented Fizdale with the game ball for his first win as Knicks head coach.

Asked to describe the feeling, Fizdale replied, “Awesome. Dream come true.”

One down, Coach. 81 to go

[Coverage Of Knicks-Nets Begins Friday at 7 PM On MSG & MSG GO.]