“We’re three games in,” he said in regards to Smith Jr., who had yet another troubling performance (0 for 3, scoreless in 11:21). “It’s not like we’ve been doing it like 20 games into the season.”
In the home opener, which started off well but the mood fell considerably — and, most notably, when Smith appeared on the court — into the kind of loss that sucked a lot of opening night optimism out of the building. After two gritty efforts in the first two games of the season, this one saw the Knicks surrender in the fourth quarter.
Remember all that “Protect the Garden” talk from the preseason? There wasn’t much of that referenced after a game that heard the building turn to the old rival, the Celtics, for some entertainment value. The crowd chanted for 7’5” rookie Tacko Fall until Brad Stevens called his number.
A roar met Fall that was louder than what most of the Knicks received during the pregame introductions.
Fizdale called the second half “very embarrassing” as he fumed through an opening statement before he took a single question. “First time we got punched and didn’t answer the bell,” he added.
You could argue the Knicks lost their will because they lost hope. That’s a lot more concerning than when a team just gives up. I’ll explain in a moment.
Things actually started out well, as they had the crowd on their side with a 13-0 run early in the game and held a 16-4 lead. They were up five at the half and were led by the new Simba of the Knicks jungle, RJ Barrett. The Garden faithful seemed to want to raise the 19 year old to the rafters and sing in unison:
“Naaaaaaaaants Ingonyaaaaaama Bagiiiiiithi Baba!”
Barrett finished with 26 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists in 36:34. And wasn’t buying into any negativity served his way when asked about the issues of an stalling offense that failed to reach 100 points.
“It’s a whole new team, been together for a couple of weeks, maybe a month,” he said. “We’ve just got to figure it out. What is it, Game 3? It’s a long season, man.”
Forgive him, he hasn’t endured the previous six seasons without a playoff berth or winning record. In his vision, this is just a temporary issue at the start of a long career.
But these people cheering for him now are hungry. So when they see another turnover-laden performance by Julius Randle (11 in the last two games), the biggest free agent signing of a summer that had greater expectations, they’re bound to get frustrated.
When they see Frank Ntilikina nailed to the bench for a second straight game while Smith Jr. wanders through his minutes, they’re gonna start demanding to see the French Prince, especially once Kemba Walker (32 points) started heating up in the second half.
Ntilikina did come in for the last 18 seconds of the first half and the reaction was as if Willis Reed just emerged from the tunnel.
“Fans are passionate,” Fizdale said. “They know what they like and they know what they want.”
But save your breath.
“It doesn’t do anything to my mindset,” he continued. “I’m gonna coach this team. Frank is going to get his opportunity. We’re talking about three games into the season.”
Here is where I’ll explain why it seemed the Knicks lost hope. The crowd turned on them quickly and the offense was just as frustrating to play in as it was to watch. Three games into the season and you’re seeing a lack of tempo and movement. In other words, it’s missing a playmaker, a quarterback.
A point guard.
Elfrid Payton (8 points, 5 assists and 4 steals in 30:46) got the start and for the most part played well. But clearly you need more.
And that’s why Fizdale can’t give up on Smith Jr. Aside from the obvious (1. he arrived in the Kristaps Porzingis trade and, 2. he turns just 22 next month), he’s just too important to what they planned to have this season as a rotation. He was supposed to be the starting point guard and arrive in elite conditioning to maximize his potential as a scorer with game-changing athleticism at that position. But after a back strain in the preseason, he’s instead played a total of just 26 minutes in the first three games and hit one of his 11 field goal attempts so far. He’s been such a defensive liability, Fizdale could not afford to give him any more time.
After he came out of the game against Boston, with the home crowd heavily on his case, Smith Jr. went to the end of the bench and sulked.
Smith Jr. spent the offseason also reworking his jump shot and it looks like he doesn’t have any confidence in it. After the game, he denied that.
“I still feel confident in it,” he said.
Fizdale believes Smith’s issues are all mental. “That’s what it seems like,” the coach said. “He’s overthinking it and it’s in his head.”
As for Ntilikina, Fizdale is aware of the intensity building for the Knicks’ 2017 lottery pick — made by the previous regime — to get his fair shake. Fizdale praised Ntilikina, saying his “mindset is right, he’s been working his butt off and when he gets his opportunity, he’ll be ready.”
Still, questions were raised about why Ntilikina isn’t getting the same chance that Smith has been given. One reporter bluntly asked, “What’s the issue?”
“There is no issue,” Fizdale said. “I’ve got three point guards and we’re three games into it.”
NOTES & QUOTES
- Randle had just 10 points and 10 rebounds in the game and did not score in the second half. After committing 6 turnovers against the Nets, he had 5 more against the Celtics. What we’re noticing out of him is a penchant for overdribbling and taking too much time on the post to make a move, which allows the defense to come over and help. He worked very hard in the first half to be a physical presence around the basket and glared a few times at the officials when he didn’t get a foul called.
- After Walker went for 32, he offered up the quote we’re so used to hearing from opposing players who come in and enjoy the stage. “This is one of the best arenas in basketball, this place is electrifying, man,” the Bronx native said. “And that’s for every basketball player. This is a place where, as a kid, you dream of playing here. It’s a special place. It’s great energy here . . . I’ve been playing here since high school, so it’s always good to come back.” Walker was a free agent this summer, but opted to sign with the Celtics and never gave the Knicks any consideration, though there wasn’t believed to be strong interest from the Knicks, either.
- Marcus Morris had 12 points and 7 rebounds in 28:41 against his former team and told the Boston Globe he never got a call from the Celtics about re-signing. He is, however, happy about being with the Knicks and understands what he’s involved in right now. “New York is a rebuilding thing,” he said. “All we’ve got to do is win a little bit and we’ll have a great crowd every night and the city behind us.” He also praised Fizdale. “I love my coach,” he said. “He’s different. I haven’t played for a guy like him yet. So he gives me all the energy he gives me and the confidence.”