Dennis Smith Jr. just had the best game of his professional career and you wouldn’t know it.
“We should have won,” he said after he scored a career-high 31 points with 8 assists in his third game with the Knicks.
While the rest of us have been conditioned this season to endure these losses like bugs to a windshield — that’s 15 straight for those scoring at home, one shy of the longest streak in franchise history — the 21-year-old brought a refreshing dose of disgust to it. Rather than find victory in his success so far with the Knicks after getting out from under Rick Carlisle’s helicopter coaching, Smith was far more annoyed that he couldn’t do enough to win.
“I’ve got to hit my free throws to keep us in the game,” he said. “That was really big for the momentum. I believe if I would have made them, that would have kept us in the game.”
Smith was 11 for 19 from the free throw line, which included missing 5 of 6 in the fourth quarter. Those misses came in a 2:45 span when the game got away.
— He missed two with the Knicks down 94-84 with 9:46 left
— He made one of two with the Knicks down 99-86 with 8:12 left
— He missed two more with the Knicks down 102-88 with 7:02 left
He also was called for an offensive foul and had a turnover late in the third quarter, when the Pistons took an 89-84 lead shortly after the Knicks had battled back from a 21-point deficit to tie the score at 80. That happened with 3:17 left in the third on, coincidentally, two free throws by Smith.
“He’s gonna make his free throws, I’m not worried about that,” David Fizdale said. “But he knows how to get to that rim. He really knows how to run a team.”
Smith a a career 68.3% shooter from the line, but this season he’s making just 66.4%. Those are easy points he’s leaving at the line.
“I’ve still got room to grow,” Smith said, “just like everybody else.”
You can see why Fizdale has taken quickly to Smith, who had issues with Carlisle in Dallas and coming out of college was said to be a selfish player who didn’t look like he cared about team success at NC State. Fizdale went to work immediately trying to reach the young guard, who has ties to LeBron James. Smith has responded, so far, to Fizdale’s encouragement.
“He told me, keep things in perspective,” Smith said. “Everybody knows how I feel about losing, especially when I could have done something to change the outcome of that . . . Tonight I think we brought it. It was on me. I’ve got to make free throws. I let ’em down.”
There was one point late in the game, Smith looked frustrated, even as he was closing in on a career-best night with several dunks, including a dazzling 360-degree finish on the break. Fizdale had a conversation with him along the sideline and while Smith didn’t change his expression, Fizdale laughed. “I’m enjoying playing again,” Smith said. “That’s the truth. I am enjoying playing basketball.”
Then he added exactly what you want to hear next: “I’m not enjoying losing.”
– Smith’s 19 free throws were the most attempts by a Knicks point guard in eight years. You have to go back to Chauncey Billups, who had 20 free throw attempts in a win at Orlando on March 1, 2011. That was just four games into the Carmelo Anthony Era. Billups was part of that trade and we didn’t know just how valuable he would be until his knee injury in Game 1 against the Celtics knocked him out of the playoffs that year. Other point guards with 19 or more FTAs in a game in Knicks history includes Nate Robinson, Stephon Marbury, Ray Williams, Walt Frazier (three times), Earl Monroe, Richie Guerin (eight times) and Carl Braun.
– Tommy Beer of Rotoworld and Basketball Insiders tweeted after the game that Smith, at 21, became the youngest Knick to put up at least 30 points and 5 assists. Earlier this year, Emmanuel Mudiay took that honor as a 22 year old after his 34 points and 8 assists against the Hornets in December. Before this season, the youngest player to post at least 30 points and 8 assists in a game were Mark Jackson, Gerald Wilkins and Walt Frazier, who each were 23 years old when they did it.
– It will be interesting to see how Fizdale manages the minutes in the backcourt once Mudiay (shoulder) and Frank Ntilikina (groin) return, which is likely not until after the all-star break. Mudiay had been the starting point guard and Fizdale put a lot of time into building up his confidence. How will he handle being the backup to Smith, especially going into a summer in which he’s looking for a new contract? Ntilikina seems like he is penciled into starting next to Smith to see if they can form a chemistry as a backcourt duo.
– Mitchell Robinson continues to have these pockets of minutes in the game where he dominates. He had 11 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks in 15:04 and, most importantly recorded only two fouls. He’s now averaging 2.0 blocks per game on the season and a ridiculous 9.8 block percentage, which would lead the NBA if he played enough minutes to qualify. Robinson is averaging 4.2 blocks per 36 minutes. He still averages over 6 fouls per 36, but over the last six games, he’s been staying out of foul trouble.
– Noah Vonleh was pulled three minutes into the game and remained on the bench in what Fizdale said was a coach’s decision. “He’s fighting right now to get back to playing good basketball,” Fizdale said. “I think sometimes you just take a step back and just watch it.” Vonleh struggled in back-to-back games against all-star Blake Griffin (55 points in the home-and-home series) and seems to be having trouble defensively with the arrival of DeAndre Jordan.
– Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors come to the Garden for the first time this season on Saturday night. Leonard sat out Thursday’s win over Atlanta due to knee soreness and there was some thought that he may sit out against the Knicks, as well. Leonard will be a free agent this summer and, if you remember, the Knicks were one of the teams on his preferred list when he sought a trade from San Antonio last year. The Raptors made the aggressive move to acquire him for DeMar DeRozan with the hopes they could convince Kawhi to re-sign with them. The Clippers dumped salary to clear the decks and open up a max salary slot to make a run at Leonard, who also had the Clippers on his list of preferred destinations and is reportedly interested in a return to his hometown.