Oh, so you thought it was going to be a different season?
In terms of pure win-loss record, we pick up things right where we left off: with a loss that came on the heels of some bad point guarding and a few puzzling coaching decisions (but I have to say that it probably didn’t matter that much). But it wasn’t a bad outing all things considered!
Our Knicks started very slow right off the bat, and while the choice about our starting backcourt didn’t make a lot of sense (we have three “point guards” but we start Trier, a non PG guy who collected a few DNP-CDs during the postseason?) the real problem there was that we couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn if we tried. Not that we tried correctly, since our offense consisted in some vague movement around the perimeter and then a simple iso, sometimes in the post sometimes outside the arc, but whatever. Anyway it was good to see that our “first timeout being called within 4 minutes from the start” tradition was produly upheld.
Fiz tried to mix things up inserting DSJ as his first choice for backup point guard only to be rewarded by a terrible stretch by the third year player. I think he’s still struggling with his health, but that’s definitely not a valid reason for the incredibly bad shot selection displayed by Smith Jr.
The Knicks were still able to stay afloat thanks to a good Melo impression by Marcus Morris and a few buckets by Randle and Barrett, but the real turning point came when Fiz tried again to rearrange the chairs by inserting Elfrid Payton for DSJ. The Spurs started turning the ball over like crazy, and while Payton is not a very good defender at least he’s a not a complete turnstile like Trier and DSJ were. His proclivity for just trying to stay in front of his man and to catch loose balls flying around in the paint was the secret ingredient that propelled a good stretch for the Knicks in the second and third quarters. Randle was a bit more aggressive, Barrett kept on going to the rim like a blossoming bulldozer and Morris was his efficient self.
The Knicks even got the lead in the third, going up by six. Enter fourth PG option of the night, Frank Ntilikina. Do you know the trite gag that goes like “Yeah French people, they surrender at everything yadda yadda yadda” (don’t tell that to Popovich though after that poor US Team outing in the summer)? Well, guess what: tonight Frank tried his best to make that gag reality. I mean, it wasn’t just his fault, but since he entered the game the Knicks lost all composure and wilted away like a malfunctioning firework. The fourth quarter was a bit like the first, where we couldn’t hit anything and the Spurs exploited mismatch after mismatch to get a lot of easy buckets.
By the time the Bockers started hitting shots again the Spurs had gone on an unrelinquishable lead thanks to a 18-0 stretch, and that was the game for you.
All in all, not a bad game. Just a winless one.
– Let’s start with the obvious, k? RJ Barrett (21 pts, 5 rebs, 2 ast, -2 +/-) had a very, very good debut. It’s not the 21 points (most by a Knicks rookie in a debut since the current record holder, Eddie Lee Wilkins – who? – scored 24 in 1984), it’s the way he played. He quite never forced things, he was a good, active defender and his shot selection was a sight to behold, save for a frustration-induced midrange jumper that clanked on the rim in the fourth. It’s very possible that RJ still has a lot of 3-13 games in his belt, and it’s hard to believe that most teams will be as turnover happy as the Spurs were tonight, but I feel confident in RJ’s output going forward. If he ever adds a reliable jumpshot we probably have our starting wing for the next 10 years.
– I don’t know if I really like Julius Randle (25 pts, 11 rebs, 6 ast, +6 +/-), but I have to say that we certainly need him on offense. He can and will punish teams if he can get down low, he will find cutters and shooters, he will run the court very well during fastbreaks. He can’t defend though, and can be a bit soft on the glass. Definitely a good Knicks debut (with the mandatory injury scare that in the end was just cramps), but playing him alongside Portis doesn’t make a lot of sense for defensive purposes. More Taj, please!
– Elfrid Payton (11 pts, 2 rebs, 8 ast, +14 +/-) got the most of his opportunity tonight. I don’t understand why Fizdale is playing mind games with such a bad team, but if his decision to start Trier was about seeing if one of the three PGs on the roster could be annoyed enough to devour the floor once in, Elfrid did his best. Plus/minus says it all this time, but honestly his game was pretty good in every facet (save for the stupid fouls that limited his playing time). You just don’t stumble into 5 steals by chance. Again, the Knicks won’t always play these Spurs, so you shouldn’t count on another 30+ points after turnovers performance, but Payton’s command of the game in the open court was a joy to watch. A few of his passes were pure threading the needle gold.
– Ok sorry, I bursted into manic laughs just thinking about Frank Ntilikina (1 stl, 2 tos, 0/1 FG, -6 +/ in three minutes of play). I mean, Frank was just… I don’t know how to say it. This was probably the most discouraging performance ever by a player I invested so much raw emotion into. I wish it was Fizdale who ruined Frank’s confidence, but honestly I don’t think one can deny the simple fact that Frank, while understanding basketball at a macrolevel, doesn’t understand NBA basketball well enough (unless we’re talking about on ball defense). I think we’re well past due the point where Frank should show some improvement on an NBA court. I fear he’s officially a lost cause.
– What’s the point in starting Allonzo Trier (1 to, 0/3 FG, -6 +/- in six minutes of play) if you already have three other shot creators in your lineup? If you really don’t want to start one of your point guards but have Randle, Morris and Barrett out there, wouldn’t it be a bit saner to start Dotson? Trier just shitted the bed this time, and I think it’s gonna be a long long time before he sees the court again as a companion to Barrett.
– Raise your hand if you never got over the Melo experience and wanted him to retire as a Knick. Ok, thank you, the exit is just right there.
– No but seriously: watching Morris play feels like Melo never left. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing (at least until Marcus keeps hitting his shots), but he’s a genuine ball-stopper on offense. He didn’t play a bad game in itself, but he was involved in every bad Knicks lineup, as evidenced by his game-low -15 +/-. I guess the Spurs aren’t that sad about him reneging his verbal agreement last summer.
– Bobby Portis played meh, which is definitely better than I expected. He just didn’t hit his shots and offered zero rim protection, but he’s not completely useless. He also dished 5 assists, which might be the reason the temperature dropped today and it’s been raining for the last four hours here in Bologna.
– Kevin Knox put up good numbers (13 points, 5 boards, 55% from the field) but he’s the same old Kevin. Putting him on defense against DeRozan or Rudy Gay was like giving them their choice of free ice cream again and again and again. I like his three point stroke, and that’s it.
– During the second quarter MSG went with a Fizdale interview bit. He said “I’m not someone who wants people to be happy. I’m a leader”. Yeah, sure. A tank leader. I have to say that the defense looked much better than last year, though. Part has to be the personnel, but there’s something to be said about intensity, and that’s probably a merit of the coaching staff. Let’s give credit where it’s due.
I think we’re in for a very losing, mildly fun season. RJ Barrett might be for real. Mitch will come back. This might be the stepping stone for a successful 2022-23 season, don’t you think?