Before we get to the impressive debut of rookie RJ Barrett, this much needs to be said after this first impression of the new-look Knicks: they may be one guard away from being a very good team.
The question is, do they have that guard on the roster?
Dennis Smith Jr. was supposed to be that guard, but his season debut left more questions about his status in the rotation, let alone the starting lineup. Frank Ntilikina was drafted to be that guard, but he might have had the worst three-minute stint of his short career. Barrett could become that guard, but he’s just 19.
And then there is Elfrid Payton, who signed here to be that guard and waited until the second quarter to get his chance. He was a catalyst for what became some very promising basketball played by the Knicks on opening night in San Antonio.
“Elfrid absolutely put his foot forward and took it to heart and really ramped up the competition,” David Fizdale said of the ongoing point guard battle.
Payton (11 points, 8 assists and 5 steals) was by far the best of the three-point guards in the game, but the bigger story is none of them got the start. Fizdale made somewhat of a surprising move when he opted to go with a starting backcourt of Barrett and Allonzo Trier, but then quickly abandoned it.
“I’ve got to watch the film,” Fizdale said of what he saw from that starting backcourt, “and make my adjustments from there.”
Smith Jr. was the first guard into the game and, much like his two preseason appearances, he seemed slow and hesitant. There was no bounce of a Slam Dunk finalist and there was no bravado of a lottery pick looking to establish himself in his third season after an offseason he dedicated to fitness and nutrition. The Spurs attacked him on defense, with drives by Dejounte Murray (18 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists) that put Smith’s surprising lack of mobility — back strain still an issue? — on display.
When the Spurs weren’t exposing Smith defensively, they dared him to shoot. Smith didn’t look anything like the guy who scored 30 in Detroit last season with aggressive drives into the paint. He finished 1 for 4 from the field and had three fouls in 10:20. He didn’t play at all in the second half.
“I think it’s just rhythm,” Fizdale said. “Just finding himself again. We’ll get him there.”
Ntilikina got his chance late in the third quarter when he entered the game for Payton, who started the half and had the Knicks humming. They turned a 59-51 deficit into an 80-73 lead. It was a five-point advantage when Ntilikina checked in and he had a chance to push it back to 7 with a steal. But he drove soft to the rim and had his layup blocked by Jakob Poeltl (though replays showed it should have been a goaltending call).
With 14.6 seconds left, Ntilikina threw an ill-advised blind pass in the backcourt that was stolen by Rudy Gay, who took it to the rack for the layup. The Knick lead was one after the third. Fizdale had seen enough barely 20 seconds into the third when Ntilikina again threw a lazy pass that was intercepted and turned into easy points.
Fizdale wasn’t asked about Ntilikina’s performance, but the results did not motivate another look, especially late in the game when Payton got into foul trouble. The coach went with Barrett and Wayne Ellington rather than back to Ntilikina or Smith.
Payton played 26:03 and while he committed five fouls, he did not have a single turnover. He was +14.
“When he came in,” Marcus Morris said, “he changed the game for us.”
Julius Randle called him a “true professional” for staying ready.
Payton may be the best option, for now, while the Knicks figure out how to get Smith Jr. on his game. Ntilikina’s biggest issue isn’t his shooting, it’s his inconsistent compete level from game to game.
While it’s only one game, the team, overall, offered enough evidence to believe they can be a very competitive team if they can get some consistent, steady play from the point guard position. While it’s only one game into the season, it’s never too early to look around the league for a veteran guard who may fit that mold.
That is, if you don’t believe that player is on the current roster.
NOTES & QUOTES
Barrett had 21 points and 5 rebounds in 37:07. He is the first Knicks rookie to score 20+ points in his NBA debut since the 1980s. And no, it wasn’t Patrick Ewing. Remember Eddie Lee Wilkins? Fizdale said of the 19-year-old Barrett, “When the popcorn’s popping, that kid’s ready.” Barrett consistently offers the same response when asked about playing in the NBA: “It’s a looong game.”
Julius Randle had 25 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists in 35:24, but his night was cut short by leg cramps. “It’s unfortunate,” he said. “I’ll fix it. I can’t let my team down like that.”
Marcus Morris led all scorers with 26 points in a team-high 39:15
Kevin Knox had effective minutes off the bench, with 13 points and 5 rebounds in 21:10. He committed five fouls, but his 5 for 9 shooting (3 of 4 from three) were positives.
Despite getting the start, Trier played just 6:51 and didn’t see the floor in the second half. He was 0 for 3 during a jittery start for the entire team, which hit just 1 of their first 11 from the field. Fizdale is going to have a hard time finding a role for Trier off the bench if he is going to keep giving opportunities to Smith Jr and Ntilikina while also using Ellington.
Both Morris and Randle spoke with optimism about the team, despite the loss, because of how hard the team competed on defense, with 16 steals and 32 points off turnovers. “We’re trending in the right direction,” Morris said. “If we keep fighting like that, Randle said, “we’re going to be really good.”
Aside from the need for steady guard play, the Knicks have to be better on the boards if they want to be a top 10 defense. They lost the rebounding battle, 51-39, and gave up 10 offensive rebounds to the Spurs. They also committed 32 fouls which put San Antonio on the line for 36 free throw attempts.
Speaking of defense and rebounding, the team missed the presence of second year center Mitchell Robinson (ankle), who did not play but could be good to go for Friday’s game in Brooklyn.
Morris and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had a private chat after the game on the court. Morris backed out of a two-year, $20 million verbal agreement with the Spurs during the free agency moratorium in July to take a one-year, $15 million offer from the Knicks. The Spurs traded Davis Bertrans to clear the space to sign Morris, so the move upset Popovich, who was publicly critical of what he called “an unfortunate situation handled unprofessionally.” Morris explained that he preferred to be in the East and close to his family in the Philadelphia area and informed the Spurs of his reasoning at the time. He said Popovich told him not to let “media come in between” what they had talked about previously. Whatever that means.
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