Improved Play From Knicks Not Enough Against Blazers

Tim Hardaway Jr. smirked and shook his head as he considered everything David Fizdale has tried to motivate, inspire and enlighten the team.

“We’ve gone from guest speakers to, you know, we’re doing meditation, breathing, all this, all that,” he said. “We can only do so much.”

After a lecture from football Hall of Famer Ray Lewis and a third change to the starting lineup in the last four games, the losing hasn’t stopped but there was, at least, some evidence of that the resilient team we saw at the start of the season had returned. Hardaway Jr. is right when he points to how you go from being a losing team to a competitive team.

“It has to be a fire built from within the group,” he said, “and I feel it’s starting to come back. We had it in training camp and when the season started.”

This game followed the same script from those first 10 games, when they were 3-7 but held a lead or were at least tied in the fourth quarter of six of those seven losses. The Knicks stayed toe-to-toe with the surging Trail Blazers (12-5), who sit atop the Western Conference, until the all-star backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum put the pedal to the metal and made the shots and plays that win games.

Tim Hardaway Jr. shares his thoughts on what cost the Knicks the game, but remains optimistic about the team's future.

“They played extremely well,” McCollum (31 points) said of the Knicks. “They were aggressive, they knocked down shots all night and they showed they can compete with anybody.”

But the NBA still doesn’t keep records for Moral Victories.

“At the end of the day,” Hardaway Jr. said, “we’re taking the ‘L’ home.”

That would be six straight for those scoring at home to push the record to 10 games under .500 at 4-14. This is the earliest the Knicks have fallen 10 games under .500 since they started 4-14 in the 2014-15 season. That one ended 17-65 and led to the 4th overall pick, which turned into Kristaps Porzingis.

But while you can watch Duke now and dream of Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett or Cam Reddish in a Knicks uniform, there’s still a lot of season left to play and current prospects who need to be developed. Fizdale gave a brief look at his three rookies in the starting lineup over the last two games, but quickly scrapped that idea once he saw how opposing teams were attacking them.

So he went back to a frontcourt of Mario Hezonja, Noah Vonleh and Enes Kanter to replace Allonzo Trier, Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson. The result was a more stable group to start the game, better defensive awareness and less pressure on the younger players as they came in off the bench.

Kanter, who was clearly not thrilled about coming off the bench, sounded a lot more supportive of this move by Fizdale.

“He needs to find the best fit for us,” Kanter told reporters before the game. “That’s why we all respect him. We all respect his decisions. He’s the head coach. He’s going to make moves and for us as players we just need to not complain and just go out there and play our game.”

Kanter finished with a relatively quiet 7 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists and a block and steal in 26:37 matched up against Jusuf Nurkic (13 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists). The Knicks starters recorded 17 of the team’s 22 assists and all but Vonleh (-3) was a plus. Hardaway Jr. had 32 points on 10 of 21 shooting for his third straight 30-point game. Vonleh had a monster game with 14 points, 14 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists and a blocked shot. But he missed four free throws in the fourth quarter, including two with 1:03 left and the Knicks down by 2.

The issue for the Knicks was, once again, not enough from their young players. It starts with Kevin Knox, the 19 year old who at Monday’s practice acknowledged he has had a “motor” issue, which goes back to last year at Kentucky and he’s trying to improve on it. The ankle injury he suffered early in the season set him back physically and he just hasn’t had the same bounce in his legs that we saw in Summer League, when he seemed to dunk everything with ease.

 

Knox played just 12:35 and attempted only three shots. He was 1 for 3, including two misses from three point range. He looks like he’s still trying to catch up to the NBA speed and flow of the game, but “motor” is definitely something to watch with him. That isn’t something you can change overnight, it needs to be trained. I’d expect the coaching staff has him doing high-energy, high-intensity drills to get him playing harder. The old saying goes, ‘How you practice is how you play.’ He’s also still growing into his body, which looks like it can carry a lot more weight. Look at a lot of the second- and third-year players who are suddenly emerging into stars, a great deal of their success is simply based on strength and physical confidence.

Robinson seems like he’s the same player whether or not you start him or have him come off the bench. There’s one thing we’re learning about this guy: he’s a competitor. He played 18 minutes and had 6 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks. That’s a hell of an impact. Really excited about what he will look like a year from now.

Trier seems to be trying to play more under control, but now that he’s on the scouting report, he’s seeing a lot tougher defense. Officials are also quick to call him for using his off-arm on dribble drives. He had 9 points in 14:38 and the area he most needs to improve is on the defensive end. He doesn’t have great size or length, so he’ll need to become at his positional defense and awareness. A great player for him to study would be Jason Kidd. Oh you laugh, but Kidd did not possess great size, quickness or length and yet was an underrated defender and was rarely caught out of position.

Frank Ntilikina had his usual eye-catching moments on defense — in one sequence, he single-handedly caused a shot clock violation by hounding the ball-handler at the start of the possession and then came in with timely help defense to negate a shooting attempt as the shot clock expired. And after curiously attempting just one shot in Orlando, Ntilikina put up 7 FGAs in 27:32, including 5 from three-point range. The problem was he made just 1 of the 5 from downtown. He had 7 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist and was -8.

Trey Burke thrived once again with 19 points off the bench, including 12 in the fourth quarter. Fizdale took him out with about four minutes to go and there was criticism because he had the hot hand. So then he put Burke back in and he was out-muscled for a critical offensive rebound by the bigger Evan Turner with 9 seconds to go and Turner converted to clinch the game.

Fizdale explained that he had Ntilkina and Hardaway matched up with the Lillard/McCollum backcourt and “I needed Trey on the floor” for offense. But admitted, “It was tough, it was a tough call for me.”

GAME NOTES:

-The benefits of quick stardom from playing basketball in New York City were on display last night as Trier showed off his new apparel line, Bui1t 4 This. But this is not some money grab, this is a very thoughtful endeavor by the undrafted rookie, who was raised by a single mother. Proceeds from the sales of these t-shirts and sweatshirts will benefit the Win program, which assists homeless mothers and their children. You can go to https://represent.com/allonzo over the next two weeks (ending Dec. 4) or until they are sold-out to make a purchase.

Rebecca Haarlow interviewed Lillard (29 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 steals) on the court after the game. Lillard’s mother sat courtside for the game. It was something she always wanted to do, watch her son play at Madison Square Garden, so Dame brought her and a few of his aunts to New York City for the event. “You know this is the Mecca,” Lillard said. “There’s no energy like this building and I’m happy she was able to come witness it.” It’s certainly a nice story, but how many times do we have to hear about how great it is to play at The Garden from opposing players? Now Lillard is an interesting case. Remember, he met with Blazers late owner Paul Allen last January about the future of the franchise. Allen passed away in October and it is expected the franchise will now be sold in the next 18 to 36 months. Bleacher Report said earlier this week that from his meeting with Allen, the two made a pact that Lillard would be traded to a team of his choice if he ever wanted out. Lillard, however, said that was “false.” Portland is atop the West right now and playing well, but are they built to win a championship? He may be the best player in the NBA that most sports fans who are not die-hard NBA fans have never heard of. He has two more years left on his contract after this one at almost $30 million each year.

Damian Lillard speaks with Rebecca Haarlow after scoring 29 points to help lead the Trail Blazers to a 118-114 win over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

-Have you checked in on the Westchester Knicks yet? They’ve got another Trey Burke-like thing happening, it seems, with former first round pick John Jenkins, who is averaging 28.3 points per game after 8 games. He’s also shooting 50% from three-point range, with 3.8 threes made per game. Jenkins played five NBA seasons with the Hawks, Mavericks and Suns. At the age of 27, he’s trying to work his way back into the league and followed the Burke path. You’d need to see a lot more out of Jenkins before a call-up is considered and, obviously, the Knicks would need to open up a roster spot, which they’re already going to need to do to sign Trier once the 45-day window expires on his two-way contract.

-Speaking of the need for three-point shooting, Courtney Lee went through a full contact practice on Monday and is feeling better. Right now the veteran wingman needs to get his conditioning up before he can consider being available to play in games. Lee suffered whiplash during training camp and has been dealing with muscle spasms in his neck. The Knicks could use his ability to shoot the three and also defend, not to mention his experience on the floor. Once he does return, the trade rumors will probably begin, but he has maintained that he is happy as a Knick and has been on the bench during games offering his insight and guidance to young players.

-The Lillard/McCollum backcourt combined for 60 points and average a combined 48.1 points per game as a duo, which is the second-highest in the NBA behind Steph Curry/Klay Thompson (50.9 ppg). Did you know that only one time in Knicks history they had a backcourt duo both average over 20 points per game in the same season. Can you name them?

[Coverage of Knicks-Celtics Starts Tonight At 7 PM On MSG & MSG GO.]