There was #FIBAFrank, this time on an NBA floor. When David Fizdale opted to start Frank Ntilikina, one of the greatest civil wars in Knicks fan history suddenly had a ceasefire. It was too important to the team, at this early point in the season, to argue. Everyone needed to see the third-year guard play well.
“Bigtime,” rookie RJ Barrett said. “Big time.”
That’s how Barrett described the performance of Ntilikina in a game that ended with a Jayson Tatum game-winner with barely a second left. A starting backcourt of Barrett and Ntilikina — a pair of Knicks lottery picks — combined for 25 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists,
4 steals and just 3 turnovers. And maybe some communication between the Frenchman and Canadian en francais.
“Yeah, we speak to each other in French, on the court,” Ntilikina revealed before the game. “It’s fun.”
Could the search for a point guard be over for the Knicks? They were without veteran Elfrid Payton (hamstring) and Dennis Smith Jr. (personal reasons) and Fizdale believed it was time to give Ntilikina a shot. It was a good game to choose, with the shifty Kemba
Walker to deal with for the Celtics. Walker went off for 32 points and a big third quarter in Boston’s blowout win at the Garden last Saturday. Ntilikina had success against Walker while playing for France in the FIBA World Cup upset over the United States.
Walker still went for 33 points in this one, with a perfect 14 for 14 at the free throw line. According to NBA.com tracking data, Ntilikina guarded Walker for 4:50 of the game, which is the most he’s defended anyone this season in a single game. Walker had two turnovers and one assist while Ntilikina defended him.
“He played Kemba hard all game long,” Barrett said, “and it’s great to have somebody like that on your team.”
Walker’s only points matched up against Ntilikina came on a nifty crossover step-back shot with 3:32 left to give Boston a 95-91 lead. But Marcus Morris Sr. answered with a three to keep the Knicks right on the heels of the Celtics. Morris came up with some huge baskets
late in the game, none bigger than his three with 4.7 seconds left to tie it at 102. Morris, who spent the past two seasons with the Celtics, had 15 of his team-high 29 points in the fourth quarter in his first game back at TD Garden.
“He really needed a breakout game,” Fizdale said. “What better gym to do it in than the old one you were in.”
Despite the loss, there were obvious signs of encouragement for the Knicks (1-5). Perhaps if the record was not what it was, this one would be appreciated for the grinder that it was between two division rivals. The home team won it on a tough shot on the final possession.
Shake your head, on to the next one.
But the desperation for wins right now makes it harder to move on from yet another loss that was decided in the final five minutes of the game. Four of the five defeats this season came down to the final possessions and three of the four were single-digit outcomes.
The Knicks defense has steadily improved since allowing 117 points per game in the first three games. Over the last three, that number has plummeted to 99 points per game allowed. Celtics coach Brad Stevens admitted he was caught off guard by a change the Knicks
made in their defensive plan for this game.
“They played a unique style to what they normally do,” Stevens said. “They switched 1 through 5 on every screen.”
You can do that with Ntilikina at the point and Mitchell Robinson at center. Both a versatile defenders who can use their length and athleticism. The concern is both have a penchant for foul trouble and there’s also how much offense you sacrifice with them in the lineup.
But you can’t deny the results on defense when they’re out there together.
— NEW YORK KNICKS ON MSG (@KnicksMSGN) November 1, 2019
Ntilikina, in this game, was very locked in and aggressive on both sides of the ball. His greatest issue, aside from shooting, is his inconsistent compete level from game to game. If he can bring intensity on defense every night, he is proving he deserves a spot in the
rotation, if not a starting role next to Barrett.
“He’s just doing the job I’m asking him to do,” Fizdale said, “and I’m really proud of the way he’s going about it.”
So when Tatum drilled a fall-away long two over Barrett, the immediate instinct is to wonder what more the Knicks could have done to defend that shot. Robinson was nearby, perhaps he could have come over to help?
“Contested fade-away? In the corner? That’s a tough shot,” Barrett said. “That was good D, just better O.”
NOTES & QUOTES
*Stevens talked more about the Knicks defense, saying Fizdale “set up these false matchups so when we set screens, they got back to their matchup, which was very good.” By the end of the game, Boston adjusted to the switching and anticipated it on the Tatum game-winner.
But the Knicks were fine getting Barrett on Tatum for that play. “That’s just a great shot,” Fizdale said. The Knicks and Celtics won’t see each other for another month (they play at MSG on Dec. 1) and Stevens said they’ll remember this wrinkle the Knicks
threw at them. “Now we’ve seen it once,” he said, “so we’ll be better when we see it again.”
*Fizdale also made another adjustment to his game-plan by shortening his rotation from 10 players to 8. He used Bobby Portis (13 points in 20:50), Wayne Ellington (9 points, 3 for 10) and Kevin Knox (12 points in 28:42) off the bench and kept either Barrett (39:07)
or Ntilikina (37:46) on the floor at all times.
*A game after calling himself out for not playing well, Julius Randle’s struggles continue. He had just 8 points and took only 7 shots in 33:38, with 6 of the team’s 13 turnovers. He did grab 10 rebounds and dish out 5 assists, but there were again defensive
*Free throw shooting is a major issue for this team. They went 14 for 21 from the line in the game and are now shooting 67.3% on free throws for the season, which is the second-worst in the NBA.
*Another issue when it comes to the team’s shooting involves finishing around the rim and in the paint. This game was no exception, as the Knicks missed a total of 17 shots in the paint.
*Robinson suffered a sprained index finger on his left hand when he missed a dunk in the second half. He left the game and went back to the locker room for X-rays, which ruled out any significant damage. When Robinson (6 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks in 16:16) returned
to the game with the finger wrapped in tape, he immediately caught a pass and finished at the rim to show no ill-effects of the injury.