After a clutch three-pointer and a thunderous dunk on the break by Kevin Knox, there had to be a thought in David Fizdale‘s mind to call a play for his 19-year-old rookie to win the game.
School is in session all year and what an education this could have been for the Knicks‘ lottery pick, who earned his way back into the starting lineup.
But the ball never found its way back to Knox in the final 20 seconds of a game that ended with two poor possessions and without any help from the officials. Sure, there is a case to be made that there were fouls to be called, but you need to build a bigger resume to get those kinds of whistles late in the game.
“We can’t put the blame on the referees,” said Emmanuel Mudiay, who appeared to be pushed on an errant 14-footer with 17.1 seconds to go and the Knicks down one. “We’ve got to take ownership of that.”
Mudiay had Matthew Dellavedova trailing him off a screen and a clear look at the basket. Dellavedova, who was just re-acquired by Cleveland from Milwaukee, clearly puts his left hand into Mudiay’s back and offers a shove but then pulls his hands away as Mudiay tries to absorb the contact and draw the foul as he pulls up. The shot missed and no whistle came to rescue Mudiay.
Cedi Osman got the rebound and was immediately fouled by Daymean Dotson with 15.7 seconds left. Osman made both free throws to make it a three-point game. The Knicks called a timeout and Fizdale drew a play for Tim Hardaway Jr. — not Knox? — with Mudiay in-bounding the ball.
Hardaway Jr. was grabbed momentarily on the cut and stopped his movement as if to exaggerate the hold and draw a foul, but no whistle came to rescue him. Once he did complete his cut, Dellavedova read the play, stepped out to close on the pass and Mudiay suddenly had no other options. So, he threw it in the general direction of Enes Kanter.
“We didn’t have any timeouts,” Mudiay explained. “I had to throw the ball somewhere.”
Kanter had just turned after setting the pick for Hardaway and realized the ball was coming at him. Larry Nance Jr. reacted quicker and picked it off with 14.2 seconds left. Dellavedova got the ball from Nance and was fouled and hit both free throws.
You might say that decided the game. But Fizdale will tell you that you’re wrong.
He’ll point to a 2:53 stretch to finish the first quarter when the Knicks gave up a 13-3 run to fall behind 39-23.
“That was the game,” Fizdale said. “The game was lost in the first quarter.”
The Cavs lead reached 22 points midway through the second quarter, but the Knicks did what they often do this season when faced with large deficits: they kept chopping the tree. It was cut to 11 at halftime. A 13-2 run to open the second half suddenly had the score tied at 67.
So what was the adjustment Fizdale ordered the players to make on defense?
“Guard the ball,” he deadpanned.
Then he offered a stat that rendered all other analytics useless when it comes to the Knicks issues on defense:
“I think we had 7 blow-bys — on-the-ball blow-bys — in the first quarter,” he said. “That was the biggest thing we addressed.”
The defense improved enough in the second half to hold the Cavs to just 40 points for 23 minutes and 36 seconds. After a tough stop that resulted in a scramble for a loose rebound with 36 seconds left, Mudiay got the ball and fed Knox on the break for a dunk that looked like something out of an ABA highlight film.
“They’ve been waiting for that dunk for a while this season,” Knox said of his Statue of Liberty-style dunk, “so I thought I’d give it to them now.”
Knox flexed after the play and Fizdale pumped his fist and met the rookie with a chest bump on the sideline. The momentum still needed one more defensive stop to carry them to a win. But out of a timeout, the Cavs got the ball to Rodney Hood (23 points), who tried to use a screen to shake free of Frank Ntilikina, but couldn’t, and instead used a nice spin move and elevated just enough over Ntilikina to knock down the 10-footer in the paint to give the Cavs back the lead.
That’s now five straight losses for the Knicks (8-21), who now have the same amount of losses as the Cavs (7-21) and Hawks (6-21) and one fewer than the Bulls (6-22), who own the worst record in the East. The only other team below that is the Suns (4-24).
–Knox followed up his 26 and 15 game against the Hornets on Sunday with 19 points and 7 rebounds in Cleveland. That’s four games in double-figures over his last six and he’s made 7 of 14 from three-point range over his last two games. And, remember that issue he admitted he had with “motor”? He’s looking a lot more active lately. There was one play we featured on the Wally Wall during the Postgame show on MSG Network, where Knox showed good bounce making a help-side block and returned to the paint during that defensive possession to grab a rebound in traffic. He then pushed the ball up the floor and attacked fellow rookie Collin Sexton on the break with a nice Euro-step finish at the rim. “Every game,” Fizdale said, “you’re seeing him get a little bit better.” Defense, as expected of young players, is still an issue. He picked up three early fouls that limited his playing time in the first half. But the most encouraging part of his game is his calm with the basketball and confidence when he shoots it.
-Ntilikina finished with 16 points, four assists, three rebounds, one steal and one block in 23:31. It was yet another game in which he started off slow in the first half but then came out in the second half as a much more aggressive, engaged player. He’s shooting the ball with confidence and making moves without hesitation. He looked good on defense and on Hood’s shot there wasn’t much more he could have done other than make it a little tougher for him to get off the shot. But he also had to fight through a screen just to stay on him rather than allow the switch.
-First quarters have become an issue again, much like we saw last season. The Knicks allowed 39 points in the first quarter to a Cavs team that averages just 103.4 points per game, which is the fourth lowest output in the NBA. But since that three-game winning streak last month, the Knicks defense has fallen apart and the biggest issue has been in the first quarter. Over the last eight games, the Knicks are allowing 32.5 points per game in the first quarter and yielding 54.3% shooting by their opponents. They’re going into the second quarter trailing by almost seven points on average each game.
-Rookie Allonzo Trier (groin) missed his second straight game is likely to be out for the rest of the week. This is significant because not only will the Knicks miss his scoring punch off the bench, the injury buys some time for them to make a roster move before they have to sign him off his two-way contract. The 45-day window was set to expire on Friday, but with the injury, these days don’t count toward that clock. But it’s still only a matter of time before a decision must be made.
–Courtney Lee was away from the team for two days to travel with the Knicks’ G-League affiliate so the veteran could get some game conditioning and try to find a rhythm after missing almost all of training camp and the first month of the season with a neck injury. Lee played 31 minutes with Westchester on Wednesday night in Florida and had 16 points on seven of 21 shooting. He was just one for nine from three. He is expected to join the team in Charlotte for Friday’s game. While some may question why the Knicks are prioritizing Lee, who is 33 years old, but understand that the veteran may have some value on the trade market at some point for playoff teams looking to add experience and 3-and-D depth. Lee is also on the books for $12.7 million next season, so if his contract can be moved at some point this season, it would open up more salary cap space for the Knicks to use during free agency in 2019. So, yes, it’s important for the Knicks to have Lee play and create some value.
[Coverage Of Knicks-Hornets Gets Under Way Friday At 6:30 PM On MSG & MSG GO.]