As Ja Morant’s triple-double to open March Madness has Knicks fans now imagining this Russell Westbrook-type as their next point guard if they don’t win the lottery, the player taken in the lottery two years ago, who was supposed to fill that role, was finally back on the court.
Frank Ntilikina returned to the lineup after missing 24 games with a groin injury. Ntilikina played 25:12 and managed just five points but had five assists and four rebounds. The 20-year-old played some point but mostly was off the ball on offense.
“He helped people get shots, he defended,” David Fizdale said. “Obviously shooting is always going to be rusty if you’re out that long.“
That remains Ntilikina’s biggest issue, especially when you play him off the ball. Ntilikina was 1 for 6 in the game, including 1 for 4 from downtown. He missed three open looks from downtown, including one airball from the corner. This is the area in which he must improve (30.7% from three in two seasons) because the trend we are seeing in today’s NBA is there are not many rotation spots on winning teams for guards who are non-shooters.
But overall he moved well, showed a little more quickness going toward the rim and had his head up looking to make plays with the basketball. He is, as we have seen, quite robotic when it comes to halfcourt play and often he telegraphs passes from one side of the court to the other. He has, this season, shown an ability to be effective in running pick-and-roll, especially because he can use his size and length to pass over the defense, as he did on a lob play with Mitchell Robinson in the first half.
He also showed off his defensive impact by forcing a miss at the rim, took the outlet from DeAndre Jordan and without even taking a dribble had the instincts to throw a perfect pass up the court to Emmanuel Mudiay (21 points) for an easy dunk. It showed great awareness of Ntilikina’s part because Mudiay had just fallen on a drive in the previous possession and Denver tried to take advantage of the numbers by pushing the ball up the court. Ntilikina hustled to make a defensive play and then hit Mudiay, who never got back on defense.
For missing over a month of games, Ntilikina didn’t look as if he lost a step, nor did he gain one. He was pretty much the same player he’s been all season.
“I think I can do better,” he said, “like every day.”
The Knicks have nine games left in the season and while it’s clear many players have checked out physically simply by the lack of effort on defense in these games lately — the Knicks once again gave up almost 40 points in the first quarter — there will be a lot of eyes on Ntilikina for the rest of this season.
– Since Sunday’s comeback win over the Lakers, the Knicks have been, as Fizdale said, “getting the hell smacked out of us.” Over the last three games, against the Raptors, Jazz and Nuggets, the Knicks are allowing 125.3 points per game. The biggest issue has come at the start of these games, as opponents are scoring an average of 38 points — 38 points! — in the first quarter over the last three games. The Knicks defense is allowing opponents to shoot 61.4% from the field and 51.7% from three-point range. That’s a sizzling 15 for 29 from downtown in the first quarter. The Knicks are finding themselves down by an average of 14 points after the first quarter of the last three games.
– Mitchell Robinson had 16 points and 10 rebounds and 3 blocks. The streaks keep on going, too. That’s 21 straight games with 2+ blocks, which ties him with Manute Bol and Alonzo Mourning, and now 30 straight games with at least one block.
– Kevin Knox started 1 for 8 from the field and 0 for 4 from three-point range but wound up finishing the game with 19 points on 6 of 16 shooting and 3 for 8 from downtown. In 33:45 of playing time, however, he was -23. Knox is sixth among rookies with 28.4 minutes per game and fifth with 12 field goal attempts per game.
– The Knicks play their final afternoon game of the season on Sunday against the Clippers. It’s a noon tip-off and their final afternoon tip-off of the season. These haven’t gone well for the team, as they are 1-7 so far in games that start before 5 p.m. They did win the last early start, last Sunday, with the 124-123 win over the Lakers.
[Watch the Knicks Take On the Los Angeles Clippers Sunday at 12 PM on MSG & MSG GO.]