If the Knicks learned anything, it’s that they don’t have the type of talent to go “hero ball” in the closing possessions of a game. But maybe with this win, they learned they don’t need hero ball to close out a game.
What they needed was a hot hand and to keep feeding it. That, on this night, was Bobby Portis, who had a monster game off the bench with 28 points and 11 rebounds against his former team.
“They trusted tonight,” coach David Fizdale said of his first win of the season.
The trust didn’t come easy. In fact, it took a while for several key players, including Julius Randle, to give in. Randle was bumbling through another frustrating night of turnovers (8) and missed shots in the paint against multiple defenders. The first half ended with the Knicks down 10 and Randle (3 for 8, 6 points in the first half) expressing visible frustration as he left the court. He was working hard, but, some might say, not working smart.
By the final stretch of the fourth quarter, however, he was a catalyst in a big win because he stopped trying to do everything and, instead, did the simple thing. He passed the ball.
“Julius was trusting,” Fizdale said.
Twice he found the red-hot Portis for big threes — none bigger than with 1:47 to go to give the Knicks a 100-98 lead — after he attracted the double-team.
“He was there, in space, finding the right spots,” Randle said. “[The Bulls] were trying to send two at me, when I was on the pick-and-roll, wherever I was, and everybody was just in the right spots. It just made my job easier.”
While Randle seemed to downplay his two key assists — the second was a dagger three that Portis hit in front of the Knicks bench — Fizdale went out of his way to emphasize the importance of this “big step” that Randle took.
It’s been clear through the first three-plus games of the season, Randle, the team’s biggest free agency acquisition, has not looked anything like the player the Knicks thought they were getting. He looked hesitant, clumsy and frustrated all too often on offense.
He often forced shots and seemed like he was trying to do it all and wound up doing nothing.
But Fizdale knows this wasn’t a player being selfish. They continued to watch film with Randle and show him how defenses are playing him. And Randle was, as expected, receptive to the coaching.
“He’s gonna get better and better,” Fizdale said, “because his agenda is pure. I always feel guys improve when they’re about the team.”
This was, without a doubt, a team win and they needed it badly. Portis was the headliner, as he basked in chants of “Bob-by Por-tis!” from the crowd. Rookie RJ Barrett had yet another strong performance, with 19 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists in 40 minutes. Kevin Knox had 14 points in 16 minutes off the bench and came up with three big defensive plays in the fourth quarter to fuel the comeback.
Oh and while we’re mentioning lottery picks, Frank Ntilikina got his chance and came through on the defensive end against Bulls guard Zach LaVine. Ntilikina missed all six of his field goal attempts — including three wide-open looks from three — but Fizdale only wanted to focus on the positive impact Ntilikina had on the game.
“Fantastic,” Fizdale said. “He guarded, he set the tone defensively, he set people up, he got us organized. The shots will fall for him, but the thing I am proud of is how he kept himself ready.”
Ntilikina played sparingly in the first three games of the season and moved up the depth chart due to the absence of Dennis Smith Jr., who left the team due to the sudden death of his stepmother. Mitchell Robinson inscribed “DSJ” on his sneakers to show support for his teammate. It is not known how long Smith will be away from the team.
It was an emotional day and night for the team, capped by a cathartic win before a two-game road trip. But it didn’t come before more anxiety, as the Bulls jumped out to a 20-8 lead due to more poor interior play by the Knicks. They were down 33-15 after the first and cut it to 10 at the half. By the fourth quarter, a grumbling Garden crowd was on its feet roaring loudly as the Knicks made their push to tie it at 88 with 6:09 to go.
But in a blink, it was back to a 98-90 deficit when Fizdale called timeout with 3:24 to go. This felt like another comeback that would fall short, just like in San Antonio and Brooklyn. But out of that timeout, the Knicks executed an inbounds play to perfection and then went on a 15-0 run to finish the game. The Bulls missed their final 7 shots.
“They held their composure,” Fizdale said. “Experience pays off.”
Now to see if they can build off of it.
NOTES & QUOTES
- Ntilikina’s role may grow even larger on the road trip, with Smith away and starting point guard Elfrid Payton dealing with a hamstring issue that caused him to leave the game in the second half. Payton played 20:42 before he exited the game. Fizdale said after the game he didn’t know what Payton’s status would be for Wednesday’s game at Orlando.
- The Knicks dominated the boards in this game, out-rebounding the Bulls 63-38. They grabbed 25 offensive rebounds. You’d have to go back to Dec. 28, 2005, to find a game in which the Knicks recorded at least 25 offensive rebounds in a regulation game. They had 27 offensive rebounds in a 105-95 loss to the Magic on that date. They have since had two other games of 25+ offensive boards, but both games went to OT.
- Let’s talk about the last two lottery picks for a little more. Four games into the season, Knox is averaging 12.5 points and 4.0 rebounds per game while shooting 48.5% from the field and 9/16 so far from three. And Barrett through four games is not just among the top rookies in statistical leaders, he’s putting up one of the best stat lines of anyone in the league. Barrett is averaging 20.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists with 2.0 steals per game in 37 minutes per game. He’s shooting 49.2% from the field and 46.7% from three. You want to find an issue with the 19 year old? That’s easy, he’s leaving points at the free throw line. He’s shooting just 44% from the stripe right now, with only 11 of 25 made.
- Former Knicks GM Al Bianchi passed away on Monday at the age of 87. He was with his family in Arizona and died of natural causes. Bianchi, a Long Island City native, was GM of the Knicks from 1987-91 and his first bold move was to hire a young, up-and-coming coach out of the college ranks named Rick Pitino. Those were fun and tumultuous years, but saw the beginning of a renaissance of the franchise with Patrick Ewing and Mark Jackson, before Dave Checketts and Pat Riley arrived. One of the last moves Bianchi made was to sign another relative unknown, John Starks, out of the minor league circuit.
- Knicks President Steve Mills on the passing of Reggie Bullock’s sister and Dennis Smith Jr’s stepmother. “Our Knicks family is deeply saddened by the sudden passing of two of our players’ close family members. At times like this, we are reminded that life is bigger than basketball. Our thoughts are with them and their families.”