Donovan Mitchell had a message for Knicks fans who may be ready to give up on Frank Ntilikina.
“The kid is really good, people don’t see that,” the Jazz all-star guard said after Ntilikina missed his 25th straight game due to a groin injury. “He’s a great defender and one of the hardest guys I had to go against last year.”
With Ntilikina out — along with four other players due to injury — the shorthanded Knicks were blown out again by Mitchell and the Jazz. Mitchell had 30 points and drilled 5 of 9 from three-point range in 28:39.
It was a personal celebration for Mitchell, the son of a Mets executive who grew up a Knicks fan and had hoped to be drafted by them in 2017. But Phil Jackson was locked in on Ntilikina throughout the draft process mainly because of a defensive potential that Mitchell also insists is there.
“He shut me down last year when I played here,” he said while talking about Ntilikina to a group of New York reporters. The reference was to a 106-101 win by the Knicks last season, when Mitchell scored 17 points in the first half and then only two in the second half on 1 of 7 shooting. Ntilikina had two steals in 20 minutes that night.
But in the meetings between the Knicks and Jazz since that game, Ntilikina has played sparingly. When the teams played at Utah last season, Ntilikina played less than five minutes and Mitchell had 17 points. In the game at Utah earlier this season, Ntilikina played 16 minutes and was 1 for 7 (2 points) and Mitchell had 15 points in 23 minutes.
And in this game, Ntilikina was in street clothes, unable to do anything to help what was an obvious issue for the Knicks: stopping dribble penetration. Mitchell (5 assists) got to the paint at will, as did Ricky Rubio (9 assists) and Raul Neto (6 assists) to exploit a soft Knicks defense that was scrambling on help defense to stop the ball and left open the perimeter for the Jazz to bury a season-high 20 three-pointers.
The Knicks allowed a season-high 137 points, which is the most points they have allowed in regulation in 10 years.
Ntilikina was drafted to put a stop to all of this. He is expected to be back in the lineup on Friday as long as practice on Thursday goes well. What’s disappointing is that the Knicks hoped to see Ntilikina paired with another lottery pick from the 2017 draft, Dennis Smith Jr., in the backcourt. The thinking is their games may complement each other, with Smith as a dynamic offensive guard and Ntilikina providing shut-down defense.
Ntilikina has had moments where his defense has stood out and there are opponents who have made note of his potential. The issue has been his offense and his fit in the backckourt. Ntilikina, with a mediocre handle compared to NBA standards, struggled to organize the offense at the point guard position and did not often enough find ways to break down a defense when pressured. But when you play him off the ball, his shooting is a concern, with career percentages of 35.6% from the field and 30% from three.
The fact that he has only played in 41 games this season due to injuries has hampered any chance for him to do like other young players on the roster — Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson — and get tons of minutes while learning on the job. That was supposed to be the case after the all-star break, but the groin injury took away that opportunity until now.
“I’ve made a lot of progress,” Ntilikina said before the game. “It’s a good feeling to be back on the court, doing five-on-five. It’s been a while.”
As you would expect from anyone who has missed over a month of games, Ntilikina said he needs “a little more rhythm and a little more intense practice to get back on the court.” And while there’s only 10 games left in the season for the Knicks, these are still very important games for Ntilikina to remind people of the element he was expected to bring.
Mitchell has no doubt he eventually will.
“Once he starts figuring it out on offense,” he said, “he’ll be really good.”
– Dennis Smith Jr. (sore back), Allonzo Trier (calf), Noah Vonleh (ankle), Kadeem Allen (illness) and Ntilikina were all out of the lineup, which left the Knicks with just 10 healthy players available. As a result, 19-year-old rookie Kevin Knox played 46:47 of the 48-minute game and had a team-high 27 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists on 10 of 17 shooting.
– Crazy stat contrast from this game to share with your friends: Jazz center Rudy Gobert was 7 for 7 in the game and every single shot was a dunk, while forward Joe Ingles was 6 for 9 in the game and every single shot was a three-pointer. Utah took more shots from three-point range (42) than in the paint (41).
– Even crazier: the Knicks lost this game by 21, trailed by as many as 38 points and yet actually outscored the Jazz 69-63 in the second half.
– Defense was hardly something to highlight in this game for the Knicks, but that didn’t stop Mitchell Robinson from doing what he does: collect blocked shots. The rookie had 14 points, 12 rebounds and added three blocks in 30 minutes of action. The three blocks gives him 136 on the season, which set a new Knicks rookie record for blocks in a season. He also extended his streaks of at least one block in a game (29 games straight, Knicks rookie record) and 2+ blocks in a game (20).
— MSG Networks (@MSGNetworks) March 21, 2019
After the game, Robinson didn’t sound interested in talking about his individual achievements. “I mean, it’s a great honor but I’m here trying to win a game,” he said. “It’s a good feeling to come into the league and be able to set records, it’s amazing.”
Gobert, a dominant shot-blocker who has Defensive Player of the Year and two All-Defense selections on his resume, raved at Robinson’s potential. “I think he’s got a lot of talent,” he told MSG’s Rebecca Haarlow. “He’s got all the tools to be a great player and he’s getting better. I watched him early in the season and now and I think he’s learning the NBA game. It’s only his first year. To me, my first year I was in the G-League. It’s too early to judge, but he definitely has all the tools . . . I don’t see any limits for him.”
– Damyean Dotson had 21 points and hit 4 of 9 from three-point range. He has been lights out from three-point range as he has made 3 or more threes in a game over the last six games. The longest streak of 3+ threes by a Knick is 8 games, set by John Starks (1994-95), Stephon Marbury (2006-07) and J.R. Smith (2013-14). By the way, the NBA record is currently at 18 and counting, as Steph Curry has been hitting 3+ threes a game since Feb. 6.
– The Captain, Willis Reed, was in the building for the game and it was great to see him. Did you know that while the “Willis Reed Tunnel” no longer opens into the arena as it did before the recent Garden transformation, the tunnel still exists? I walk past it every game. There are seats that cover the opening that once looked out to the middle of the court.
Al Trautwig has told me about this dream he has of recreating the drama leading up to Game 7 in 1970 into a movie. You have so many characters and story lines to consider in what was one of the landmark moments in New York sports history: A concerned Wilt Chamberlain standing in the shadows of the tunnel hours before the game watching Reed get up shots on his injured leg. Phil Jackson, who didn’t play because of a back injury, serving as an amateur photographer taking photos behind the scenes. An anxious Jerry West still trying to win his first NBA title. Walt Frazier preparing for the game of his life. A city that loved basketball and a team that embodied everything they loved about the game. And the needle. That big, scary needle that was stuck in Reed’s thigh to numb the terrible pain of a torn muscle just enough to drag his leg out through that tunnel to a rousing ovation.
The Captain had to be there for his team, no matter how much it hurt. He made his first two shots and Clyde did the rest. It’s still one of the greatest stories in sports history when you consider everything involved. It could make an incredible movie, couldn’t it?