Ntilikina Return Sparks Knicks Late In Loss

David Fizdale said he spent most of this game searching for something. What was he searching for?

“A lineup,” he said, “that could just . . .”

He paused a beat and then said the obviously elusive element in his team for most of this night.

“. . . compete.”

It was another night in which the Knicks bench came in for their first shift in the rotation and get outworked. Ed Davis (4 offensive rebounds in the first half) is known to be an energizer and he provided that as the Nets dominated the boards in the first half.

The Knicks actually held a 21-19 lead in the first quarter, but the Nets used an 11-2 run to end the quarter to build a 30-23 lead. It grew to 56-45 by halftime, when the Nets had 11 offensive rebounds and 15 second-chance points.

A Nets team, by the way, that a night before had worked hard for an emotional overtime win against the Raptors.

As soft as the bench players were in the first half, the starters then came out flat in the second half as the deficit reached 18 points with 6:33 to go in the third quarter. Aside from Enes Kanter (23 points, 14 rebounds), there wasn’t much happening among the veterans, especially on the defensive end.

It seemed only a matter of time before Fizdale would send Frank Ntilikina into the game to end his streak of DNP-CDs at three. He called his number with 3:43 left in the third with the Knicks down by 15 and when he brought the ball up the court, some among the annoyed Garden crowd gave him an ovation.

Fizdale decided to give the people what they want. Ntilikina, 20, led a five-man unit that included fellow sophomore Daymean Dotson along with the three rookies, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier. The quintuplet had an average age of 21 and average experience of 46 NBA games, which is just over a half a season.

Ntilikina helped spark some energy in the building and the young group fed off of it; as Dotson scored eight straight points, Ntilikina fed Robinson for an acrobatic alley-oop and then scored on drives to the right and then left, which suddenly put the Knicks within 101-96 with 5:38 left in the game.

But that’s where the energy stopped. After a Dotson miss, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson scored. Ntilikina then had an open three that could have made it a four-point game, but he missed. Allen Crabbe didn’t miss at all from three in this game and he sank his fifth three after that to put the Nets up by 10. No one scored for almost two minutes of frantic, erratic basketball, which included some poor free throw shooting by both teams.

The Knicks defense got crossed up a few times and the Nets took advantage of it. Ntilikina’s three with 59.6 seconds left made it a six-point game and after Hollis-Jefferson missed a pair of free throws, Trier went hard to the rim for another chance to cut it to four, but Hollis-Jefferson stripped him on the drive and then Trier hit it out of bounds with 35 seconds to go. Out of a timeout, Spencer Dinwiddie (25 points off the bench) tricked Knox on a cut and scored on an easy dunk to pull the plug on the Knicks comeback effort.

The Young Five stayed on the court for the entire fourth quarter and outscored Brooklyn, 27-18. They woke up The Garden and left Fizdale with some more education.

“They didn’t do everything right, which I expected,” Fizdale said, “but they did get the most important thing right and that’s the level of competition.”

David Fizdale holds his post-game press conference after the Knicks' 112-107 loss to the Nets at The Garden.


 – Ntilikina said it was “really positive what we did at the end” despite the fact that it ended in a loss. He took a leadership role as the most experienced player (101 NBA games) on the court, which is something we haven’t seen out of him. The drives were nice. But shooting is still an issue. He missed three of his four attempts from three-point range and each were clean looks. He finished with seven points and three assists in 15 minutes and was plus seven. There have been all kinds of crazy reports — some from French-based basketball blogs and podcasts — that have played up possible trade rumors involving Ntilikina. Despite the gossip, the Knicks have expressed no interest in trading their 2017 lottery pick. There is still a strong belief in developing his game and it may be something that requires a slow cooker rather than a microwave.

Frank Ntilikina speaks to Rebecca Haarlow after playing his first game since being benched in his last three games for the Knicks.

– Now to see what Fizdale does with Ntilikina Sunday against the Hornets and his idol, Tony Parker, who just went for 19 points against the Nuggets. Does he get the nod for first guard off the bench or is Trier still the choice to backup Emmanuel Mudiay? Fizdale also wants to find minutes for Dotson and there’s also veteran Courtney Lee. Plus, Trey Burke (sprained knee) is looking to get back in the next day or two. They all can’t play so this will be an interesting decision for the coach to make. The front office will also need to consider the makeup of the roster and what players need to be prioritized as we get closer to the midpoint of the regular season come January. At some point, the “keepers” have to get the bulk of the minutes.

 – Tim Hardaway Jr. is in one now. After a strong first quarter of the season, where his scoring numbers were good enough to motivate Fizdale to mention him in early all-star talk, Hardaway Jr. has fallen into a shooting slump. He had just seven points on two of 12 shooting, which included zero for five from three-point range. Over the last nine games, Hardaway Jr. is averaging 16 points per game on 39.1% shooting. He’s made just 23 of 69 from downtown (33%) in that span. He’s tried to bring a defensive effort to games despite his shooting issues, but that part of his game is still not strong enough to hold up against some of the game’s top scorers.

– Allen Crabbe’s five for five performance from three-point range against the Knicks was a first. That’s the most three’s made by a Nets player without a miss against the Knicks in the history of this rivalry. One player had a four for four performance against the Knicks and it wasn’t Jason Kidd. But this player, like Kidd, did once play for both franchises. Can you name him?

[Coverage Of Knicks-Hornets Begins Tonight at 7 PM on MSG & MSG GO.]