Almost exactly a year to the day of David Fizdale‘s worst moment as a head coach came perhaps his most satisfying.
“The effort they put forth and what they said to me after the game,” he said, “I love these kids.”
He didn’t want it to be about him and his return to Memphis after he was fired by the Grizzlies last Nov. 27. Marc Gasol didn’t agree with Fizdale’s philosophies and approach in trying to change Memphis’ “Grit and Grind” style and pulled a power play on his coach by going to ownership to complain. It led to an ugly divorce that pushed Fizdale to reassess his methodology and, eventually, led him to New York, where there was no style or identity established.
It was the clean slate Fizdale needed.
And this young Knicks team has taken to just about everything he has put into coaching them so far.
“Fiz has that father figure-type presence,” said Tim Hardaway Jr., who had 22 points. “Someone you can always talk to. It makes it easier to go out there and play for him.”
As trite as it may sound at the NBA level, that’s exactly what they did for him in Memphis.
“That’s what we were playing for,” Hardaway Jr. said. “We were playing for coach.”
Fizdale and Gasol put behind them whatever issues lingered and even embraced after the game. “It was a hug we needed to have a long time ago,” Fizdale said.
Enes Kanter, who wasn’t thrilled with being moved to the bench for a few games earlier this season, also hugged his coach after he took it to Gasol all night, with 21 points and a career-high 26 rebounds. Emmanuel Mudiay added 17 points and 4 assists and Trey Burke had 15 points off the bench. The Knicks defense held an opponent under 100 points for just the second time this season.
“In past games,” Burke said, “we would be in games close and fold at the end.”
But there was a determination by the young veterans that Fizdale kept on the court to finish this game. It’s a resiliency we have seen for most of the games this season, but it is worth noting that Fizdale went more with his veteran players and less with the first and second year guys — aside from rookie Allonzo Trier (10 points in 22:30) — to close out the game.
Some fans may take issue with this and point to the need for younger players such as rookie Kevin Knox (7:26), Frank Ntilikina (13:05) and Mitchell Robinson (13:18) to gain the experience of crunch time minutes. Fizdale did go to Ntilikina and Robinson in the fourth quarter, and used Ntilikina in the closing minute of the game for defense. He hit two clutch free throws to help clinch the game.
It was clear, however, the players wanted this game. The vets — none older than 26 years old — wanted to get this win for their coach and Fizdale coached it to win more than to teach.
In a way, Fizdale is just like many of his players: reclamation projects.
After years as an influential assistant coach with the Miami Heat during their recent championship era, he was thought to be one of the top coaching candidates in the NBA. His first job lasted barely over one season and quickly he was looking for a second chance. So, it’s no wonder he can relate so well to players such as Mudiay, who has so far been his best success story with the Knicks.
Mudiay made two eye-popping athletic plays in the game, including a chase-down block on a Mike Conley drive and a stunning dunk over Garrett Temple with 1:35 left that seemed to put the stamp on the night.
“It was ferocious,” Fizdale said proudly.
“I did not know he had hops like that,” Kanter added.
Mudiay grinned when MSG Network’s Rebecca Haarlow asked him about the play, which finished off a well-timed steal by Burke with the Knicks holding a one-point lead.
“It’s been a minute, man,” Mudiay said.
– Kanter’s 26 boards was a career-best and his 20 defensive rebounds missed the franchise record by just two. Patrick Ewing recorded 22 defensive rebounds in a game back in Dec. 1992. “He was on a mission tonight,” Fizdale said. “I couldn’t take him out of the game because he was playing so well.” Kanter played a game-high 40:51. And what comes next? The Pistons and Andre Drummond, who leads the NBA in rebounding at 16.1 boards per game. Kanter ranks 9th at 12.0 rebounds per game.
– After recording four straight games in double-figures, Knox had his second scoreless game of the season. He was physically manhandled in the game, especially around the basket, which has been his biggest issue. But at 19, that’s to be expected. He was 0 for 3 in the game, which included an airball three-pointer. He did get 2 rebounds and a blocked shot. Over his last five games, Knox has mostly struggled with his shooting and Fizdale has limited his minutes (15.7 per game) as a result. The rookie is shooting 32% from the field and made 3 of 13 from three-point range in that span.
– Two of the top shot-blocking rookies were on the court in this game. Robinson wasn’t credited for a block but he did alter a few shots when he was on the court. His issue was, once again, foul trouble. He picked up three in his 13:18 of playing time. Meanwhile, Jaren Jackson Jr., the fourth overall pick from Michigan State, had a spectacular performance with 16 points, 7 blocks, 6 rebounds and 3 assists. Jackson also went 4 for 4 from three-point range, which is ridiculous when you consider he came into the game shooting under 30% from downtown. There’s no question this was a great big man draft, when you consider what we’ve seen already from DeAndre Ayton, Jackson, Mo Bamba and Robinson.
– Over the Thanksgiving holiday the Knicks mourned the loss of Willie Naulls, who passed away at the age of 84. Naulls played for the Knicks from 1956-63 and holds an important place in not only the franchise’s history but in sports history as the first black athlete to be voted team captain in major professional sports. Naulls, a 6-foot-6 forward who was a great scorer and rebounder, was a four-time all-star with the Knicks and later went on to be a member of three championship seasons with the Celtics. He also held the Knicks record for consecutive 30-point games — he had 7 straight during the 1961-62 season — until Amar’e Stoudemire went 9 straight games in 2010-11. That last game of the streak that Naulls went for 30 wound up being quite a memorable one in NBA history: it was the night Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points against the Knicks.
– Led by Jackson, the Grizzlies recorded 19 blocked shots against the Knicks in this game. It was just two short of the opponent record against the Knicks, which was set by the Cleveland Cavaliers in January 1989. One of the Cavaliers players had 11 blocks in the game, which is also a record against the Knicks. That player had his jersey number retired by the Cavs, but it is still currently in use. Who is that player?
[Coverage Of Knicks-Pistons Gets Under Way Tuesday at 6:30 PM on MSG & MSG GO.]