“The ball,” David Fizdale said, “died.”
He wasn’t describing the spinning ball that Allonzo Trier swatted away for the goaltending call on what became the game-winning score in yet another painful loss. He was describing what led to the game being decided by that critical play.
The Knicks offense was flowing beautifully for three quarters. It started out with a barrage of threes to build a big lead before a sellout crowd at London’s O2 Arena that was dominated by Knicks fans. It went from Luke Kornet (16 points) and Damyean Dotson (13 points) working downtown in the first half to Emmanuel Mudiay (25 points) slicing and dicing into the paint in the third quarter to build an 89-77 lead.
But in the fourth quarter, the Wizards took defense a little more serious with a small lineup that was able to switch everything. Suddenly the flow of an offense that was finding the open man in the first half was clogged. The Knicks hit just 1 shot in the first 6 minutes of the period and when they weren’t missing shots, they turned the ball over.
“Mental mistakes,” Fizdale said, “really hurt us.”
You could put that on the tombstone of a season that now finds the Knicks at 10-34.
But despite the sudden issues, the Knicks defense was still good enough to hold on for the win. After a Noah Vonleh post-up (party like it’s 1989!) gave the Knicks a 100-99 lead with 33 second left, the Knicks got a stop when Bradley Beal missed on a jumper. There was about a 5-second differential on the shot clock. The Knicks could essentially hold the ball and force the Wizards to foul.
Only the Wizards didn’t foul.
Why didn’t the Wizards foul?!
“We thought we could get a stop,” Scott Brooks said.
Well….they were right.
Mudiay lost the ball on a drive and slapped it to rookie Kevin Knox from behind the three-point line for a desperate heave at the shot-clock buzzer. It missed everything. Mudiay says he slipped. Knox might have tried to draw a foul there but he had to worry about just getting off a shot.
So with 3.3 seconds left, the Wizards had one last chance to steal the win.
Everyone in the United Kingdom knew Beal (26 points) was getting the ball. The Wizards ran what looked like a play from the Arena Football League. Beal was deep in the backcourt and sprinted to halfcourt. Center Thomas Bryant set a pick on his defender — Tim Hardaway Jr. — and Beal caught the ball about 30 feet from the basket.
Vonleh, who was guarding Bryant, switched to Beal. Hardaway decided to follow Beal, as well, which left Bryant alone and he quickly rolled into the wide-open paint. Beal made the pass and Bryant caught it and put up a floater just as Mudiay and Allonzo Trier arrived to defend it. Trier leaped high and batted it away just as gravity did it’s thing to the ball.
Goaltending. Video review confirmed it.
The Knicks had four-tenths of a second to get one more shot but Trent Tucker was far away in Minnesota and David Lee was at the Australian Open.
But wait, let’s go back to the game-deciding play.
“We had a breakdown in coverage,” Fizdale said. “That was supposed to be a switch and we didn’t switch…”
Oh. Right. Hardaway Jr. was supposed to stay with Bryant.
“…and we paid for it.”
These are supposed to be teaching moments, so it’s fair to ask why Hardaway Jr. is even in the game on such an important defensive possession while Frank Ntilikina, who was drafted for his defense, was left on the bench. No one asked Fizdale, but maybe someone will over the next few days when the team gets back from London.
It’s fair to ask. Hardaway Jr. had a good start to the season but his numbers have fallen off dramatically since he started dealing with heel pain which has turned into some painful plantar fascia issues. His defense has never been something to promote, but his pride and intensity are often on display.
The question about this decision isn’t just about what it says about Hardaway’s defense, it also questions what it says about Ntilikina’s defense, as well.
– Enes Kanter watched the game from his apartment in New York and, as promised, he was wearing his uniform, as captured by an ESPN photographer. Kanter chose not to join the team in London because he feared for his safety as a result of his very public feud with the Turkish government, which issued an international extradition request and labelled him as someone who was supporting a terrorist group. Kanter told ESPN’s Ian Begley that he receives “hundreds” of death threats a day. NBA commissioner Adam Silver spoke about the situation in his address to the international media assembled in London and called it “very unfortunate” but that he understood why Kanter did not want to come. “We take very seriously the threats he has received,” Silver said. The commissioner also went on to say, “I support Enes as a player in this league and I support the platform our players have to speak out on issues that are important to them.” Kanter has been outspoken about the regime of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan several years and the country has responded by cancelling his passport and now issuing an international warrant for his arrest through Interpol.
– Mitchell Robinson made his return to the lineup after missing 13 games with ankle and groin injuries. He played just under 10 minutes and had 4 points, 2 rebounds and a blocked shot. His two baskets were dunks, one which came off a pretty alley-oop play. It would be great for the Knicks to be able to finally get a long look at Robinson over the final 38 games of the season and get his development back on track. There’s just so much potential there and let’s be honest, we need something more to look for in the second half.
– Trier had his best performance in 10 games since his hamstring injury. He had 13 points on 5 of 8 shooting and looked like his legs were a lot stronger. Trier doesn’t have great length, so a lot of his game is based on the power he generates from his legs. The hamstring injury seemed to have a major impact on his ability to get to the rim and attack one-on-ones. Defenses also have learned to play him better, but I’m not buying the notion that since the contract he’s been figured out. Legs feed the wolf.
– Kornet (16 points, 4 of 6 from three-point range) as a starter is averaging 11.6 points per game. He’s also shooting 50% (23 of 46) from three in his 8 starts so far this season. What’s even more amazing is the 7-footer is only 8 for 26 from two-point range. I hear he’s looking for an apartment in SoHo.
– With the worst stretch of travel out of the way now, the Knicks schedule settles down for most of the rest of the season. They’ll play 23 of their last 38 games at Madison Square Garden, starting with the annual MLK Day matinee on Monday against the Thunder.
[Coverage Of Knicks-Wizards on Monday, January 21 At Noon on MSG & MSG GO.]