The rivalry felt real, then it felt really frustrating. The Knicks, self-appointed underdogs in a city some say is now up for grabs about its basketball teams, had the chance to draw first blood.
Instead, they suffered from self-inflicted wounds.
Poor interior play, missed free throws and too many empty possessions down the stretch allowed Kyrie Irving and the Nets to escape — yes, escape — with a win at the Barclays Center. It was Irving’s step-back three that won the night in the first Battle of New York of the season.
“Great players make great plays,” RJ Barrett said of the shot he defended. “That’s what he did tonight.”
Irving closed what the Knicks couldn’t in the final 3 minutes of a wild game, which was played in a raucous, bi-partisan arena that heard Knicks fans booing Irving at the foul line and taunting chants by Nets fans.
Before the game, Irving talked about how the Nets are “going to take over the whole entire city” but afterward toned it down considerably.
“What rivalry?” he said, adding that he’s “not part of” that talk. “It’s a good team down there in Manhattan. I think it’s more or less the perspective of the fans that really build that up . . . We all have a mutual respect but obviously when they’re both in New York, I guess it’s supposed to be like a rivalry atmosphere.”
Barrett, the 19 year old rookie, seemed to love it and thrive in it.
“That’s the atmosphere you want to play in,” he said.
It was the second night Barrett and the Knicks had to mount a second-half comeback of a double-digit deficit. On Wednesday against the Spurs, they rallied from 16 points down only to lose late. On Friday in Brooklyn, they trailed by 19 points before a furious comeback put them in position to get their first win of the season.
Allonzo Trier (22 points) led the charge and the Knicks three-point shooting (17 for 25) turned the game around. The Knicks defense also locked in. After recording 16 steals against the Spurs, the Knicks had 14 steals against the Nets.
The defense, however, also yielded 31 fouls and 34 free throw attempts. And when the Knicks got to the line, they missed 12 of their 28 attempts. The team missed a ton of shots in the paint and around the rim, as well.
Again, self-inflicted wounds. But so much of what you see is correctable.
“We know we’re underdogs,” Barrett said. “We’re going to keep fighting.”
Barrett remains the most encouraging aspect of the start of this season. The No. 3 overall pick from Duke finished with 16 points and six steals, with five turnovers. After he served as the starting point guard in the season opener in San Antonio, he moved to the two-guard spot next to Elfrid Payton. But coach David Fizdale had Barrett at the point to close the game with Wayne Ellington at the two. Ellington’s three-point shooting gave the Knicks a 109-106 lead down the stretch.
But while the Nets had their closer in Irving, the Knicks didn’t have one when they needed it most. Julius Randle is supposed to be that guy, but he had a bad night (5 for 15 shooting) and came up empty on several late possessions in the paint. On the last one, with 21.9 seconds to go and down two, Randle tried a spin dribble, lost the ball and kicked it out of bounds off his foot. It was his sixth turnover of the game.
“I struggled with that the whole game,” Randle said of turnovers. “I can’t do that.”
On the possession before that, Irving buried a step-back three that Barrett felt he defended as best as he could. It was a shot he’s seen before.
“It’s the same shot he hit to win the championship against Golden State,” Barrett recalled. That’s the one he drained over Steph Curry in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals.
Irving and Barrett embraced after the game and the Nets star offered words of encouragement and advice to the Knicks rookie, who gets to experience the Garden atmosphere Saturday night when the Knicks face Irving’s former team, the Celtics, in their home opener.
NOTES & QUOTES
– Fizdale said the point guard situation right now is “difficult” because no one has emerged to claim the spot. Payton got the start against the Nets and had a good game with 10 points in 24 minutes, but Fizdale didn’t use him at all in the fourth quarter. Dennis Smith Jr. came in for Payton in the first half and again looked completely out of it. He was 0 for 4 and didn’t take a single shot with any confidence at all. And just like in San Antonio, he was a defensive liability, as the Nets, like the Spurs, attacked him mercilessly. After 4:31, Fizdale had to get him out of the game. “He’s still in the struggle,” Fizdale said of Smith, who is now 1 for 8 in two games so far. “I’ve just got to figure out how to get him out of it . . . We’ll figure it out.” It’s worth noting that Frank Ntilikina did not get a look at all after playing under 3 minutes in San Antonio.
– Fizdale continuously says what he’s looking for in a point guard is to find someone to organize the offense and get them into their sets. Right now the Knicks offense lacks any tempo at all. You see cuts that are not in synch and a lot of hesitation, which results in the ball sticking with one player and, eventually, one-on-one plays happen. The timing has been off and it may take a lot more game experience for them to figure it out, but it may take even longer without a point guard who can organize and recognize out on the floor. For now, Fizdale is going with players (Barrett, Trier) who can at least get into the paint and put pressure on the defense.
– Mitchell Robinson returned to the lineup after missing the opener with an ankle injury. He played just 16:35, however, because of foul trouble. He still had 6 points, 7 rebounds, 4 steals and a blocked shot, which just shows you how important it is for him to stay out of foul trouble. When he’s on the floor, he does a lot of things.
– Meanwhile, the Knicks were again outrebounded (46-39) and gave up double-digit offensive boards (11). This is a major concern for a team that expels so much energy on defense just to get a stop. These are the little things that can change losing to winning.
– Here’s a mind-blowing stat: the Knicks are shooting 49.1% from three-point range after two games. Kevin Knox was 4 for 4 against the Nets and is now 7 for 8 in two games. Marcus Morris is 6 for 10. The Knicks don’t take a lot of threes, but maybe they should?
– Remember when Morris had everyone giddy at Media Day for his “protect the Garden” speech and how “this won’t be like last year” and 90’s Knicks references? We didn’t see much of it in three preseason games at the Garden, but it will be interesting to see just how much the team backs up that talk in their home opener against the Celtics.