When this season is over, the final record will be typed into the media guide and left there to be buried among future seasons. It’ll likely go forgotten and referenced only when some future losing streak grows long enough to require historical perspective. Perhaps if the lottery balls bounce their way on May 14, the season will become a scar you brag about to friends well after it has healed; about that time you lost a fight, but gained all-important respect and character.
But for David Fizdale, this record is permanent. It stays with him his entire career in what, starting next season, will be a mountain to climb just to get to the .500 mark. Gregg Popovich was 17-47 in his first season with the Spurs. The team went 11-42 in the final 53 games of the season. But Pop benefited from a lottery win that turned into Tim Duncan, the cornerstone of his championship teams, and a healthy David Robinson. It made that 1996-97 season the scar he could show to friends.
Right now all Fizdale has are broken glasses, but not a broken spirit.
“I was locked and loaded to go the distance,” he said after his first win in six weeks, which ended an 18-game losing streak. “Whatever it took. Whenever that win was gonna come, I didn’t break my routine. I just kept my head down and kept working.”
That can be the toughest thing to do in the midst of historic losing. And while now three of the 11 wins have come against the Hawks, this game in Atlanta, the last before the all-star break, was probably the one to be most concerned about if you’re a coach of a losing team.
“It would have been very easy for us to check out and get onto wherever we’re gonna go [for the break],” Fizdale said. “We were desperate men.”
Perhaps it was the Hawks who were already on vacation, as they looked sluggish in the first quarter that saw the Knicks open up a 14-0 lead and make it 28-13 going into the second quarter. Eventually Atlanta’s offense, which has been putting up some gaudy numbers of late, got on track and cut the Knicks lead to 54-51 by halftime. But there would be no Third Quarter of Doom this time for Fizdale’s group, who held on throughout a sloppy second half by both teams. When it came time to make plays, Dennis Smith Jr. (19 points) made his presence felt.
“We’ve got a lot of competitors in that locker room, as well as our [coaching] staff,” Smith told MSG’s Rebecca Haarlow after the game. “So it’s a great feeling.”
For once, this group — mostly comprised of young players still trying to find themselves — was able to smile. But there was some perspective, as well.
“It was great,” Fizdale said of the locker room, “but it wasn’t over-reaction. They knew that we’ve been banging on the door . . . It’s the gratification of getting over the hump.”
It’s all downhill from here. After the break, the Knicks have 24 games left.
– Smith Jr. had 11 of his 19 points in the second half and was a very efficient seven for 10 from the field with seven assists in 31:50. He’s played seven games so far with the Knicks since the trade with averages of 17 points and six assists. The issue is his 42.7% shooting, which has been the knock on him even before the NBA Draft. But there is a toughness about Smith that we’re seeing and Fizdale is trying to develop, but Smith has a tendency to lose his edge when he gets tired. He looked burnt out late in the 31-point performance at Detroit last week and never seemed to get recharged after that night. “I told him, I think he can get in a lot better condition,” Fizdale said. “He came to us, he was only playing 24 minutes a night in Dallas and he just came off being away from the team for about a week.” This is similar to last season, when the Knicks acquired Emmauel Mudiay from Denver. There isn’t much time left in the season for Smith to really get his conditioning up to an elite level, but it may be enough to send him into the offseason motivated to get there. He won’t get much time to rest this weekend, as he heads straight to Charlotte to compete in the Slam Dunk contest on Saturday night. Smith then needs to get himself situated in New York during the break, which includes getting himself a car and an apartment.
– Just a follow up to the previous report from the Sixers game, when we discussed the trash-talking that went on between Smith Jr. and Ben Simmons. Smith later revealed to Haarlow that Simmons was “doing a lot of things that wasn’t really related to basketball. He knows me, I’m just saying keep it hoop. If you want to hoop, just keep it hoopin. If it’s anything else, let it be known, but other than that, just play basketball.” Smith didn’t go any deeper, but it sounds like Simmons — a notorious trash talker — was getting too personal on the court and Smith was tired of it.
– Mitchell Robinson had another 4 block game and is now averaging 2.1 per game on the season, which is among the NBA leaders. But he’s growing into more of an all-around player as his PER (Player Efficiency Rating) has soared to 21.0 (15 is about average for a good player). Over his last 10 games, Robinson is averaging 7.5 rebounds in 21 minutes per game. In the last seven games, he’s has two double-doubles and averaging 11 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in 21.5 minutes per game while shooting 72% from the field. Also notable is his Defensive Rating in the last six games is 103 and his Block% is 12.5. That’s insane.
– The Knicks go into the break in the bottom third of the NBA in most defensive categories, but that part of the game has been improving somewhat over the past few weeks. Since Jan. 13, the Knicks rank 5th in Defensive FG% (44.7%), 8th in Defensive 3FG% (34.1%), 10th in Opponent Points Per Game (108.9) and 15th in Defensive Rating (110.3). The bigger issue is the poor shooting that has put too much pressure on the defense in this era of high-powered offenses. The Knicks in that same period, since Jan. 13, are still the worst-shooting team in the NBA at 42.8% and were second-worst in three-point shooting (31.4%) which led to averaging just 100 point per game. Tough to win when you can’t score.
– All-Star Weekend schedule: Friday night is the Mountain Dew Ice Rising Stars Challenge Game. Kevin Knox, an injury replacement for Lonzo Ball, will play for Team USA. The game is scheduled to start at 9 pm (ET) on TNT. On Saturday night, it’s NBA All-Star Saturday. Dennis Smith Jr. will participate in the Slam Dunk contest, which is the final event. The entire show begins at 8 pm on TNT. We will be back next Friday, Feb. 22, for the Knicks first game back from the All-Star break when they host the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Garden. In the meantime, be sure to check out my radio show on ESPN Radio (98.7 FM in New York). I’ll be on Tuesday and Thursday night next week from 7-10 p.m. and we talk a lot of Knicks and NBA!