Enes Kanter is a WWE fan and this was a performance perfect for a Thursday Night Smackdown. The Knicks center was demoted from the starting lineup, was cut by an elbow that the referee didn’t see and with blood dripping from his left eyebrow, Kanter clotheslined the crowd favorite, sparked an altercation, and was tossed from the arena under a shower of boos.
And the show wasn’t over yet. In the locker room afterward, with a bandage covering three stitches that closed the gash over his eye, Kanter feigned ignorance to the ejection.
“Did I get a second technical? I got ejected? Woah. Doing what? I got ejected, really?” Kanter said. “Doing what?”
He then looked directly into the camera and remained incredulous.
“Well, I mean, you’ve got to respect the refs,” he then added. “Woah, OK, I got ejected. I mean, I was getting my eye stitched so, I got ejected. Cool.”
Kanter was assessed a technical foul and then a second tech that was part of double-technicals given to him and Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo after the two had to be separated behind the play following some physical defense by Kanter.
By rule, a second technical foul is an automatic ejection. But what remains unclear is why Kanter was given a second tech. Knicks coach David Fizdale was asked what the official explanation was on the techs.
“I haven’t gotten it yet,” he said.
The incident went down with 9:56 to go in the fourth quarter and the Knicks trailing 91-82. Kanter met a driving Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo with a body check and slapped the ball away as he attempted his unstoppable Euro-step move. Antetokounmpo crumbled to the court and play went the other way.
Or, as Kanter put it, “Giannis was driving to the basket and I stopped him. They didn’t even call a foul.”
It’s true, no foul was called. But as Kanter encouraged the crowd’s boos after the play, Antetokounmpo got to his feet and stormed after Kanter. The two were face-to-face and were quickly separated, though neither did anything more than talk. Kanter then left the court to get his bloody eyebrow attended to in the locker room and never returned.
“It’s unfortunate, because I know at the other end he got his head split and that wasn’t called,” Fizdale said. “I’m sure there was some frustration coming back the other end. That’s all I asked. I said, ‘Did you see what got him to this point?’ And they said they didn’t see that one.”
Antetokounmpo finished with 31 points, 14 rebounds and 8 assists in the game and went to the line for 14 free throw attempts. The Knicks had just 16 as a team. Milwaukee was called for just 14 fouls and yet recorded 11 blocked shots.
The Bucks swept the home-and-home series, which began on Christmas Day at the Garden. This ends the season series, which means the Knicks won’t have to see Antetokounmpo again until 2019-20. He first had issues with Mario Hezonja and now Kanter. It put a little juice into the game and Fizdale tried to use it as a teaching moment for his young team.
“It got heated, that’s good stuff,” Fizdale said. “I told our young guys in the huddle after the ejection, I said, ‘This is what the playoffs feel like. A team beats you on your floor the last game you’ve got to come back and try to win. People’s heads are getting split open.’ I’ve seen that multiple times in a playoff series so just for the young guys that were still out there, it was a lesson and I wanted them to keep competing.”
The Knicks couldn’t keep pace, however, as their shooting issues overwhelmed them in the fourth quarter (6 for 21 from the field) and the Bucks ran away with it. The Knicks (9-27) have now lost six straight games and 11 of their last 12. They own the second-worst record in the NBA as they just began a season-long six-game road trip which continues out west.
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* – Kanter came off the bench because he was replaced by Luke Kornet in the starting lineup. As the losses pile up and the defense continues to be an issue, Fizdale felt Kornet’s three-point shooting and better defensive awareness deserved a look. Kornet responded by drilling his first two threes of the game and it turned into a career-best performance of 23 points on 7 of 11 shooting from downtown. Kornet also added five assists and a blocked shot. “That’s what I was hoping for,” Fizdale said. “A guy that’s going to space the floor for us, open up the floor for us to be able to attack the paint and make plays.” Kornet matched up against Brook Lopez, whose own three-point ability (he made 3 of 6) pulled him away from the paint. Two 7-footers raining threes from the perimeter and neither one even once posted up. If you ever see former Bulls first round pick Brad Sellers — Mayor of Warrensville Heights, OH — ask him if he feels like he was born too early.
* – Despite Antetokounmpo’s 61 points and 28 rebounds in the home-and-home, Noah Vonleh drew praise from Fizdale about his defense and tenacity against the MVP candidate. Vonleh blocked two of Antetokounmpo’s drives and also finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds and, it should be noted, was +6 in his 27:45 on the court. “This is the whole point of player development,” Fizdale said of the 23-year-old former lottery pick’s emergence this season. “We’re thinking big picture with him and can we develop him into an All-League defender, a guy that can guard multiple positions, a guy that can take the physical challenge against the best in the world, and that’s going to take some time, but I love the way he’s starting off right now.” Vonleh’s 110.3 DRtg isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination (100 or lower is top 10 in the NBA), but the Knicks view him as a multi-faceted player that they’re still getting to know. He’s signed for just this season, but Fizdale sounds like he’d like to have him back next year. “We’ve had Noah three months,” Fizdale said. “I’m just looking forward to seeing what it’s going to look like in Month 6, Month 7, next year, August, if we keep putting these deposits into this game.”
* – Kevin Knox saw his streak of 8 straight games scoring 15 or more points come to an end, as he finished with 12 points and struggled with his three-point shooting (one for six) for a second straight game. When you look at Knox, remember what Antetokounmpo looked like as a 19-year-old rookie and see him now after four off-seasons to build up his body. Knox has a similar gate and stride, though he isn’t nearly as fast or has the same motor that the Greek Freak possesses. But Knox has a much better shooting touch and sneaky-good hops. So much to like about Knox and his potential, he just needs experience and a smart offseason training regimen.
* – Everyone can exhale. Frank Ntilikina played. After a DNP-CD on Christmas Day, Ntilikina had 5 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 steal with 4 fouls and was -2 in 20:45.
* – Kornet’s 7 threes while going head-to-head in Milwaukee with Lopez had some significance. First, Luke’s dad, Frank Kornet, played for the Bucks in 1989-90 and 90-91 and while Luke made 7 threes in one game, Frank hit 10 threes in two seasons. Meanwhile, according to Basketball Reference, only one other player, listed as center, has ever hit 7 threes in a game. That player, Brook Lopez, did it twice: Nov. 11 against Denver, when he was 8 for 13 from downtown and as a member of the Nets on Jan. 25, 2017 against the Heat when he made 7 of 14.