When asked on Tuesday what he needed to work on to improve as a point guard, the 20-year-old replied, “Everything.”
Frank Ntilikina was moved out of the starting lineup for the first time this season. He began as the small forward and was moved to the point guard spot, where he ran the first unit for the last nine games and had some good moments but mostly moments where the offense sputtered and he started to regress.
David Fizdale decided it was time to give Emmanuel Mudiay a look at the starting point guard spot. He also promoted 19-year-old Kevin Knox into the starting five, which put him up against — at least on paper — five-time All-Star Paul George.
But Knox did not get the defensive assignment on George. Nor did Ntilikina, whose calling card is as a versatile defender. For most of the game, it was Tim Hardaway Jr.‘s task and it didn’t go well. George finished with 35 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and a block in just 29 minutes. He did all of this in three quarters.
Hardaway Jr. scored 20 in 25 minutes, but he struggled against the bigger, stronger George, who led the Thunder with Russell Westbrook out for a fourth game.
Knox didn’t shoot the ball well (5 for 16), but remains undaunted when he’s on the floor as he scored 15 points for his third straight game in double figures. In his first start of the season at the point, Mudiay had 7 points and a team-high 5 assists but also committed 3 turnovers in 21 minutes.
While the focus will be on the porous defense (64 points in the paint allowed), it seems to be related to the offense, which is getting more and more stagnant and out of sync and that is leading to poor shooting. They finished at 44.3% but went just 7 for 26 from three-point range. Meanwhile, the Thunder, who are 29th in the NBA in three-point percentage, drilled 16 of 33 from downtown. Most of them were uncontested looks off kick-outs from easy dribble penetration.
It’s the kind of thing the Knicks just don’t get in their offense, which has slowed down dramatically since the start of the season. The Knicks are now in the bottom third in the NBA in pace and the plan to run on misses and makes – and also pick up 94 feet – has been scrapped for now.
Some of this has to do with Ntilikina, who tends to play slower and needs to be reminded to push the ball up the floor. Mudiay seems to want to run more, but when he does and there is no immediate scoring option, he tends to get lost and the offense doesn’t get set. The Knicks offense struggled against the Thunder, who have the second-best defense in the NBA right now and lead the league in steals. They forced 18 Knicks turnovers and turned them into 36 points.
Overall, this was a tough matchup for the young Knicks. Fizdale changed the starting lineup for the third time in 15 games and suggested afterward he may do more tinkering before Friday’s game in New Orleans. Basically, as Swin Cash said in our pregame show, Fizdale is making it clear jobs are open for everyone and no one has status – veterans, lottery picks, etc. – or entitlement to them. It’s a matter of waiting for players to step up and take the job.
Fizdale is still waiting.
-The Kevin Durant billboard that was put up near The Garden on 7th Ave. and made headlines a few weeks ago when the Warriors came to town was replaced. But hopes for Knicks fans — and any other fanbase of a team with salary cap space this summer — went up with the news of this public rift between Durant and Draymond Green that started at the end of regulation in the Warriors’ overtime loss to the Clippers on Monday. The Athletic reported that some players at this point are expecting Durant to leave and there’s not much motivation to try to beg him to stay. It apparently got so bad between Durant and Green in the locker room after their argument on the bench, that the organization suspended Green for one game. They’ll get over this, for sure (Klay Thompson said, “This will be in the past like a ponytail.”). The Warriors are still the odds-on favorite to win the NBA championship…AGAIN. But what comes after that remains a big story to follow in the biggest markets in the NBA: Durant has been linked to the Knicks since the summer, but there are other potential suitors, including the Lakers, who will be in the mix.
-It’s Food Week at MSG Networks and, fittingly, Kristaps Porzingis was profiled in GQ and talked about his diet and how dedicated he is to what he eats, and what it does for his body. He also talked about how he deals with anemia, which was diagnosed when he was a teenager, and how he’s learned how to manage it. He also discussed how he’s learned how to meditate to decompress and handle stress. But at the end of the interview, he had an interesting quote in regards to what we’re all waiting for anxiously: his return to the court. The author jokingly asked if he’d break some news and tell him when he’ll be back. “I have nothing to give you. I wish I could, but it’s not in my hands. Whenever they clear me, I’m going to be back.” Whenever they clear me is the key phrase here. You already know from the InstaStory posts that drew a lot of attention that he wants the world to know he’s getting closer. It’s an agonizing experience for an athlete to be in-season and watching your team play and seeing the NBA go on without you and you are, for now, an afterthought. These days may be the toughest, mentally, for him to endure.
[Coverage Of Knicks-Pelicans Begins At 7:30 PM Friday On MSG & MSG GO.]