Steve Kerr once told the story about two letters he used to write on the toe of his sneakers during his playing career that served as a reminder to him in moments of doubt or hesitation.
Those letters were “F.I.”
We can’t tell you here what word the first letter represented, but if we tell you the second word was “It” you might easily figure it out. The clean version would be something like this:
Frank Ntilikina needed this type of reminder on the court. Put all the doubt, hesitation and fear away and just play the game. Over the last two games, including the second half against the Hornets, Ntilikina played some very promising segments of basketball and looked as free as he’s ever looked in a Knicks uniform.
“He finally said, ‘Screw it’,” David Fizdale said, which is another, more acceptable play on Kerr’s “F.I.” mentality.
“Stop worrying about if he misses a shot and what people will think,” Fizdale continued, “and he just attacked.”
Ntilikina’s attack was short-lived, however, as he fouled out with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter. As he left the game, Fizdale joined him when he was ejected for arguing a questionable offensive charge called by veteran referee David Guthrie, which became Ntilikina’s fifth foul.
When you’re a coach focused on developing players, these kinds of errors by the officials are maddening. “Obviously I wanted him to keep going,” Fizdale said. “I didn’t want to take him out of the game.“
Ntilikina’s play, much like the night before against Brooklyn, woke up a sleepy Garden crowd that once again saw the home team getting blown out. He had 13 points in the third quarter on five of five from the field, including three for three from downtown. The Knicks had trailed by as many as 28 points early in the third, but after a 7-0 run to start the fourth, with five points from Ntilikina, the deficit was cut in half.
There was a push, but it wasn’t enough to make it a game. That didn’t keep the Garden crowd from recognizing what they saw from the 20-year-old Frenchman on French Heritage Night.
Though he did put up a career-high 18 points on seven of 11 shooting and four for four from downtown, it wasn’t a complete game for Ntilikina. He struggled in the first half — as did a lot of his teammates — in stopping fellow Frenchman Tony Parker (16 points).
And while Ntilikina again showed emotion — he pumped his fist and screamed “Let’s Go!” at one point — he tried to downplay his personal success by crediting his teammates. “I also made my shots,” he said, with a nod to his concerning 36% shooting on the season. “I’ve got to keep working on that and get consistent.”
After three straight DNP-CDs and a lot of work after practice, Ntilikina, at least, has found a shooting touch with a little “F.I.” attitude sprinkled in. He’s 10 for 17 from the field and has made five of eight from downtown, with one of those three-point attempts a heave at the buzzer of the third quarter against Brooklyn. So in actual attempts from beyond the arc, he’s really five for his last seven.
Fizdale and the coaching staff is putting a lot of focus on Ntlikina working on catch-and-shoot threes. “I really think there’s a capable shooter there,” he said.
But consistency with Ntilikina goes beyond just shooting the basketball. It’s his mental approach and aggressiveness that also needs to show up every night and every possession. After sitting a few games, perhaps the message is sent?
“That’s two games in a row now,” Fizdale said, “where he really came to play.”
– Lost in the appreciation of Ntilikina’s return to the rotation was an outstanding statistical performance by 19-year-old rookie Kevin Knox. He had 26 points and 15 rebounds and drilled four three-pointers for his best overall game of his early career and his second 26-point performance in the last five games. “We’re watching his growth right before our eyes, you know?” Fizdale said. We also watched something that had not been done by a Knicks rookie in over 30 years. The last Knicks rookie to score at least 25 points and grab at least 15 rebounds was none other than Patrick Ewing, who did it four times during the 1985-86 season. With this performance, Knox joined a very exclusive group of Knicks rookies, with Ewing, Lonnie Shelton, Johnny Green and the great Willis Reed. And the only other rookie in NBA history to have at least 25 points and 15 rebounds with four three-pointers made was Lamar Odom (Clippers) in April 2000.
– For Knox, it was also the first double-double of his young career and the rebounding was almost a surprise since he had been getting pushed around a lot in the paint earlier this season. The coaching staff has been putting him through block-out drills so he learns to play with contact and how to move to read the ball off the rim. As Rebecca Haarlow reported last week, Knox had lunch with Knicks legend Bernard King in Boston and clearly took notes about preparation and intensity. Knox has been running the floor with more purpose and getting to his spots with a King-like quick release. Over the last five games, Knox is averaging 15.6 points per game, though his shooting is still under 40% (39.2%). Another issue Knox has acknowledged with some frustration is his free throw shooting. He’s only nine for his last 16 from the line.
– Allonzo Trier was a late scratch from the lineup after he felt some discomfort in his hamstring during his pregame workout. Trier’s absence opened up a spot in the rotation for Ntilikina to get early minutes at the backup point guard spot. This is an important week for Trier and the Knicks, as the 45-day window on his two-way contract is set to close by Friday. As we discussed on the Knicks Fix segment during Sunday’s Knicks Game Night, the team will need to open a roster spot to sign Trier to a full NBA contract. That means a trade would need to happen or a player would need to be waived in order to fit Trier on the 15-man roster. There’s also another part of this: what kind of contract do you give Trier? He’s currently 7th in scoring among NBA rookies and has become a key rotation player. The first option is to just sign him to a minimum salary for the rest of the season, but the risk is he would become a restricted free agent without Bird Rights, which means you’d need to use cap space to sign him or match any offers made from other teams. The Knicks do have their Bi-Annual exception available and could use that to sign him to a multi-year deal. So far he’s made less than $300,000 as an NBA player. Knox, as a first-round pick, has already made over $1 million this season.
– While it’s good to see the young players doing things on the offensive end, Fizdale’s group continues to have major issues with their defense. They are allowing 114 points per game on the season, which is the third highest in the league. But over the last 7 games, it’s ballooned to 119.3 points per game allowed, with opponents shooting almost 50% from the field (49.8%) and almost 40% from three (39.6%). Pick-and-roll has caused the most trouble and it leads to a lot of running around by help defenders.
– Lance Thomas is doing something great tonight in the city and if you can participate, please do. From 6-8 p.m. at Sneakerstuff in Manhattan (22 Little West 12th Street), Lance and Damyean Dotson will be at the store for a Holiday Sneaker Drive to collect new and lightly-used sneakers to benefit the New York City Department of Homeless Services. With a donation, you will receive an 8×10 signed photo of either player, or another autographed item of your choice, plus a photo with the players. It’s a great event for a great cause.
[Coverage Of Knicks-Cavaliers Gets Under Way Wednesday At 6:30 PM On MSG & MSG GO.]