When Will Tough Losses Turn Into Gritty Wins?

I’m going to explain why this game will actually come back to haunt some of you as fans and it will have nothing to do with chasing a playoff berth. This game, if the season goes according to the plan of development and steady improvement, will eventually turn into a win rather than a frustrating loss.

And those wins could come in the latter portion of the season when some of you are counting precious lottery balls and refreshing the Tankathon.com website.

But that’s something we can lament later. For now, all I can tell you is this is the sixth loss of the season and the fifth one that involved the Knicks either holding a fourth-quarter lead or being tied in the fourth. Just take a look at how many times the Knicks were in it only to lose it in the end:

Oct. 19 at Nets:
Led 98-97 with 2:43 to go, lost 107-105.

Oct. 20 vs. Celtics:
Tied at 89 with 4:14 to go, lost 103-101.

Oct. 22 at Bucks:
Tied at 110 with 3:42 to go, lost 124-113.

Oct. 26 vs. Warriors:
Led 91-86 with 10:19 to go, lost 128-100.

Oct. 31 vs. Pacers:
Led 97-94 with 3:08 to go, lost 107-101.

These games are valuable experiences, but they’re also frustrating losses with the same issue: an inability to execute on offense and/or defense in crunch time. David Fizdale kept pointing to his head and yelling “Focus!” to his players. But what he saw looking back concerned him.

“I got that ‘Deer in Headlights’ look in the fourth quarter,” he said.

A coach of a young team doesn’t want to see Bambi. He wants to see Simba.

But what he has to expect (or at least hope) is that this experience will serve as the education necessary to one day turn these tough losses into gritty wins. This is a game, as I said on the postgame show, that you expect the Knicks will be able to win come January. Or maybe sooner. Perhaps, even, when Kristaps Porzingis returns?

The difference in many of these losses was a big play by the opponent’s top players, from Caris LeVert driving by Tim Hardaway Jr. for the win or Jayson Tatum nailing a fadeaway jumper or Khris Middleton nailing a pair of three-point daggers or Kevin Durant just being Kevin Durant.

And then there was Victor Oladipo, who was playing through bronchitis and struggled most of the night while Hardaway Jr. was lighting him up for 37 points. In the fourth quarter, however, Oladipo emerged and made winning play after winning play, from a strip-and-score on Hardaway Jr. that put the Pacers up 98-97 with 2:44 to go or a three that made it a six-point lead with 1:23 left.

But the dagger came with 21.6 to go when the Knicks failed to get to an airball by Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young was able to find Oladipo open in the corner for a back-breaking three to put the Pacers up by 5.

“That’s what All-Stars do,” Fizdale said.

[Knicks-Mavericks Coverage Begins At 8 PM Friday On MSG & MSG GO.]

For three-plus quarters, Hardaway Jr. played like an All-Star. His jumper was soaking wet as he drilled a career-high 7 three-pointers. He was also a perfect 10-for-10 from the free throw line. Without Porzingis, somebody has to score and Hardaway Jr. – through the first two weeks of the season – has been able to cover that role by averaging over 25 points-per-game.

But while he’s trying to prove otherwise, it’s clear he’s not an elite scorer who can get his shot any time he wants. So when it gets to crunch time, the offense stalls because they can’t just give him the ball and let him operate like most teams with a star player can do in those situations. (Whether you like it or not, that’s the reality of NBA basketball. Just see how the Eastern and Western Conference Finals games ended last season.)

Porzingis, last season, proved several times that he can be that player and this is where his presence is missed the most. So it’s impossible to not watch these games and wonder: will some of these loses become wins once Porzingis is back?

David Fizdale talks about the Knicks effort tonight, and what they can improve on moving forward.


–Some of the blame for the late-game offensive issues falls in the lap of the point guard, Frank Ntilikina, who had a notably quiet game with just 4 points and 7 assists in 32:49. These are indeed learning experiences for him too as a point guard who needs to organize his team in critical situations. Ntilikina was 2-for-7 from the field, missed both of his three-point attempts and, most notably, spent a majority of the game guarding Darren Collison rather than Oladipo. You would think at least late in the game you’d want Ntilikina on Oladipo or near him, but that matchup never happened.

–Was anyone else screaming for a pick-and-roll play with whomever was guarded by Domantas Sabonis once he picked up his fifth foul? Sabonis (30 points and 10 rebounds) was dominating the Knicks inside (he had a third of their 64 Points in the Paint) and Nate McMillan was using him as the center in a small-ball lineup. So why not attack him at the other end by trying to either draw his sixth foul or take advantage of soft defense to avoid that final foul? The Knicks, instead, spent too much time on the perimeter on these possessions and settled for some bad shots. You needed someone on the court — mainly the point guard — to recognize that Sabonis was one foul away from disqualification and get him in a switch or a favorable matchup. Now of course, that’s easy for me to say from the studio chair, but it’s still a big part of the game: strategy and awareness.

Enes Kanter is making it abundantly clear he’s not happy about coming off the bench for rookie Mitchell Robinson, who played just 18 minutes. This was the second game (the other was in Miami) that Kanter was completely outplayed by an opponent. Much like Hasaan Whiteside did with the Heat, Sabonis beat Kanter to almost every rebound and scored easily against him in the paint. Kanter finished with 7 points and 6 rebounds in 21:04 and that quick smile he so often flashed in the preseason was gone from his face.

–Robinson has to find some rhythm on the floor and there’s no other way for him to do that than by playing. There were a number of times early in the game he fumbled with the ball on offensive rebound opportunities and other times his teammates threw poor lobs that he could not finish. It’s a timing and chemistry thing that simply needs time. He was scoreless with 4 rebounds, but did have two volleyball-spike blocked shots.

–What does it say that Fizdale put undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier into the game down the stretch? It says he trusts him, regardless of his experience or status and Trier is earning that trust with an undeniable ability to get his shot off and a confidence to make plays. Trier finished with 14 points in 23:07.

–Sabonis, by the way, almost tied a Knicks opponent record with his performance. He was a perfect 12 for 12 on the night but finished 12 for 13 after Ntilikina was awarded with a blocked shot for breaking up a move Sabonis was making to the basket in the fourth quarter. It didn’t seem like Sabonis was attempting a shot just yet, but instead of giving Ntilikina a steal, they called it a blocked shot, thus ending Sabonis’ bid to enter the Knicks record books for what would have been a 12-for-12 game, which is the most field goals attempted without a miss by a Knicks opponent in franchise history.

Someone already owns that record. It was set in 1964 and this player, actually, later became a Knick and then was involved in one of the most significant trades in franchise history. Does any of this ring a bell? If so, what’s his name?

[Knicks-Mavericks Coverage Begins At 8 PM Friday On MSG & MSG GO.]