Ah, that feels very good.
Even amidst the most dreary seasons (and there’s no reason to believe this one isn’t going to be amongst them) there’s a chance to stumble into a game that will be remember for years to come. The Michael Beasley game against the Celtics comes to mind (“I’m strapped!”) on the good side of the memories and the Maurice N’Dour game against the Sixers does the same on the bad side.
That said, I think we have on our hands the mother of every legendary game during dismal seasons: the “Frank Ntilikina pwns the Mavs” game.
In terms of actual season results, this game was just a step on a slippery 82-story ladder. It wouldn’t have counted if we passed it with a steady foot or with trembling legs. In terms of in-game context and lore between the two teams, getting a win here would have been similar to what happens when a Division 2 team wins against a Premier League one in the FA Cup: the season could even go down in an ugly way after that, but that game will salvage a lot of the good feelings toward the team.
Getting a win while getting the best Frank game to date and watching KP miss the decisive box out (and then committing his sixth foul and being sent moping to the Mavs bench)? That’s worth more than Zion’s weight in gold.
What’s best, the Knicks were pretty much in control for the whole night. Yes, there were a few lead exchanges, and everyone was counting their collective blessings while shots were falling like crazy in the first quarter en route to a scorching hot 36 point outburst (“when the shots won’t fall anymore we’ll lose by twenty!” – real Farfa’s neurons), but in the end our guys kept their cool while still hitting a few bad shots and even Luka’s triple double, with a career high in points to boot, and KP’s 28 points were no match for our intensity and grittiness. Fizdale didn’t make any in-game dumb move too: he stuck to a sensible rotation, he started Taj Gibson and gave him some burn (28 minutes), and he pretty much awarded guys playing time based on their performance (I would have given a few more minutes to Dotson, but it’s a very minor quibble).
– Well, of course. Let’s start from the obvious: Frank Ntilikina (14 pts, 6 rebs, 4 ast, +5 +/-) was the undisputed hero of this game. He didn’t have the best plus/minus of the game. He didn’t score a lot. He didn’t dish a lot. He shot 1-for-7 from two. It doesn’t matter. Apart from the fact that Frank’s stat line was very thicc indeed (4/5 from three, 4 steals and 3 blocks in there!*), the guy was an unbelievable pest on defense. Although 4 steals and 3 blocks suggest as much, you’d have to have seen the game to know what I mean (and to that you might say: isn’t your job to tell me things I don’t know because I didn’t watch the game? Fair point). He was everywhere, even when the automatic switching employed by the Knicks sent him away from the ball defending, uh, Dorian Finney-Smith. He’d recover on someone else’s drive and then end up contesting the shot of a third guy, all the while roaming around the paint using his huge limbs to discourage easy passes inside. I swear to god he contested at least three different KP catch and shoot attempts (all misses). That’s a 10 inches difference in height, guys. And the confidence on full display, oh the confidence! At a certain point during the second quarter, Frank faked and attacked the rim, where KP was waiting for him, and tried to posterize the Latvian with total ferociousness. It didn’t work (at first KP was called for a foul, and then a coach challenge overturned the ruling) but do you remember Frank’s brief and terrible stint against the Spurs in our opener? Well, this is a completely different guy. I hope he keeps up the good work, because even if he doesn’t hit a lot of shots a defensive contribution like his is very, very rare to find. He just needs to be mediocre on offense to merit some playing time. If he can be just a smidge below average, he’s a lock to deserve at least 24 mpg.
*Stats cherry picking of the day: Ntilikina is the youngest player ever in NBA history to post a 14-6-4-4-3 line with 4 triples. Other guys who have done it in the League’s 73 years of existence: James Harden, Boogie Cousins, Tom Gugliotta (!), Nick Anderson, Robert Horry, Nikola Mirotic, Jason Kidd and Dwayne Wade. I hope against hope that Frank will ever be as good as the worst player in that list.
– As good as Frank’s game was, we wouldn’t have done jack shit if it wouldn’t have been for Carmelo Anthony (29 pts, 9 rebs, 3 ast, +7 +/-), who spent the first half drilling three after three (at some point he was 4/4 from three) before cooling off a bit in the second half. He even played passable defense on KP from time to time! You still know there’s no chance he’ll give you back the ball if there’s even half a shot to be taken, and he ended up hoisting 22 shots, by far the highest number on the Knicks team. You can’t argue with the results, this time, though. 29 shots on 22 points isn’t bad at all, and most of his points came at stratetic times, often acting as counters to dangerous Dallas buckets. Also, games like this will do wonders for his highlight reel come tradeability time.
– Honorable mention to Taj Gibson (12 pts, 8 rebs, 1 ast, -5 +/-), only because he’s the poster boy for what a veteran should do. Set picks. Give back the ball. Shoot your shots. Don’t take anything off the table. Provide defense and leadership. And also a tap-in dunk with less than 43 seconds in the game to put your team up six. As I said many times, more Taj, less Bobby.
– Listen, we knew it was gonna happen sooner or later. RJ Barrett (3 pts, 8 rebs, 4 ast, -8 +/-) just put up quite a stinker, especially in the shooting department. 1-9 (field), 1-6 (free throws) shouldn’t be shooting lines, should be chapter numbers in the book “How I learned to put the ball in the basket when there’s literally no one between me and it”. I honestly recommend RJ reads it ASAP. That said, there’s a thing that certainly gives us a lot of hope: even in a game like this, it didn’t look like RJ was being that detrimental to the team. Granted, this probably happens because he’s graded on a rookie curve, but did you remember Knox’s horrible games from last year? Can you even compare this one, in terms of overall negative impact, to the best of the worst Knox put up last year? There’s also something to be said about the fact that on a few of his failed attempts near the rim he was probably fouled. Those calls will come with time. Let’s hope that by then he’s learned to shoot his free throws (and maybe he passed the book to his teammates).
– Julius Randle had another 20 point game (on 16 shots, not that bad) and was quite instrumental for the win. That said, everyone and their mother is catching up to the fact that Randle’s high dribble, especially on his spin move, is a walking turnover. Even Breen and Wally (give us Clyde back) talked about it multiple times. Now it’s on Fiz to work a bit of his magic and stop making him try to be a Harlem Globetrotter. I mean, fourth leaguewide in total turnovers.
– I don’t mind this Bobby Portis (particularly if he ends up playing just the right amount of minutes). A good amount of rebounds, twelve, a few power plays under the rim, a general sense of semi-toughness. Oh wait. Did I mention he shot the ball 15 times and hit only 5 shots? *facepalm emoji* I think I still mind this Bobby Portis.
– I kinda liked the rotation. It was similar to what you’d expect in a playoff game: starters playing heavy minutes, no weird experimental stuff, players plugged into a role designed for their “skillset”. Is Mitch too much to handle for Fiz?
– Don’t look now, but Knox is shooting .441 from three and is rocking a .096 WS/48. I’d recommend preparing for cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria, etc etc
– Luka Doncic is so, so, so good. Ntilikina played his best defense and he still put up 38 (on 26 shots), 14 and 10. But he also committed 8 turnovers and shot a ridiculous stepback from 35 feet trying to tie the game with 18.8 seconds to go. It was one of the dumbest shot I’ve ever seen this side of the JR Smith clock debacle against the Rockets in 2014.
– KP didn’t look half-bad, you know? Still: only 3 FTA. No offensive rebound. A crucial missed box out. I confirm: I’m happy we’re not paying him the max.
– It’s so satisfying seeing Tim Hardaway Jr. lose games for another team.
And with that, I salute you and it’s on to the game against the Cavs. Will our heroes win two in a row? Will Frank have another strong game? Will RJ finally hit at least 75% of his free throws? At this point, only God knows. And maybe he’s the one who’s trying to oust Dolan from anything Knicks.