LeBron James started the conversation and the New York Knicks were about to give a great answer. That is, until the NBA’s best player and his teammates had one final message of their own.
Two nights after James took his latest indirect shot at ex-Knicks team president Phil Jackson by suggesting that New York’s rookie guard, Frank Ntilikina — the NBA’s eighth overall draft pick in June — should have been passed over for Dallas Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith, Jr. (selected one pick later), the Knicks (7-6) built a 23-point third-quarter lead before James led the Cleveland Cavaliers (7-7) back for a 104-101 victory in an uncharacteristic, mid-November playoff-like atmosphere at Madison Square Garden on Monday Night.
It was the first game for each team, following New York’s biggest win of the season (by 27 points over Sacramento on Saturday night) and Cleveland’s road win in Dallas on the same night, James’ first game against Smith, Jr.
Using a couple of big runs, the Knicks broke open a close game in the second quarter and took what seemed to be a safe lead in the next period before James (team-high 23 points, a team-best nine rebounds and a game-high 12 assists) repeatedly forced New York’s defense to collapse around him and continually kicked out to once-cold 3-point shooters who finally heated up.
Rallying from an early 16-9 deficit without their best player, forward Kristaps Porzingis, on the bench with two fouls less than four minutes in, New York stayed within three points by the end of the opening quarter. With Porzingis (who was held to more than 10 points below his 30.4 scoring average on a rare 7-of-21 off night) back in, forward Tim Hardaway, Jr. scored eight of his game-high 28 points (on a pair of 3-pointers and a steal and fast break dunk) during a stretch of 15 consecutive Knick points that put the home team ahead, 47-31, with 2:33 left before the break.
After Cleveland started the second half on a 9-2 run, to close within 53-47, New York answered with a 20-3 spurt to go up, 73-50, with 2:12 left in third quarter.
However, the Cavaliers, who missed 15 of 17 shots from behind the arc in the first half, made half of their 28 3-point shots after halftime, with James — in absence of injured starting point guard Isaiah Thomas — serving as Cleveland’s primary playmaker to set up shooters like Kyle forward Kyle Korver (who on the strength of 5-for-8 3-point shooting in the fourth quarter, scored all 21 of his points following intermission, including 19 in the final frame).
Overall, the Cavaliers made 9 of 17 3s while outscoring the Knicks, 43-25, in the fourth quarter.
“[Earlier], we really had good challenges and got out to them,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said. “Once they start making some [3s], it’s hard to turn the water off… Korver was great in that fourth quarter. We couldn’t get him to miss.”
As the barrage of 3s kept coming, the Knicks desperately tried to hold onto their dwindling lead, but a trey from reserve forward, ex-Knick draft pick Channing Frye (nine points) tied the game with 2:16 left before James later dribbled down the shot clock and drilled the final 3-point shot of the game, a left wing dagger over Porzingis, to put Cleveland ahead to stay, 100-97, with 1:23 to go.
Fouled with 4.4 seconds left, James left the door open for the Knicks when he missed a pair of free throws, but New York couldn’t control the rebound, helping Cleveland to run out the clock on New York’s most frustrating loss of the young season.
“Guys played hard,” Hornacek said afterwards. “It’s going to be a lesson for us to try to finish these games, but it’s not always trying to pull it out in the last three, four minutes of the game. A lot of times, the swing of the game comes earlier… but we’ll learn from that.”
Just another part of the learning curve for a Knicks team which despite blowing a similar game this year — when New York lost a 21-point lead in a four-point home-opening loss to Detroit — has thus far exceeded preseason expectations of being a presumed lottery team for a fifth straight year with the help of an earlier 21-point win in Cleveland on Oct. 29.
Praising New York’s mild growth while also taking another opportunity to tweak the 72-year-old Jackson and his unpopular insistence on the triangle offense, James said of the Knicks, “They’re playing some good basketball. I think Jeff Hornacek, with the release of the old fella, is finally allowed to implement what he wants to do on the team and it’s showing [to be] very effective.”
Of course, that wasn’t the only time James was involved in some controversy with New York over the past few days.
His comments about Smith, Jr. (who is averaging 14.8 points, 4.9 assists, 3.3 turnovers and one steal per game for the league-worst Mavericks) prompted Kanter to retort about Ntilikina, “This is my rookie. This is my team. This is my organization, I cannot just let [LeBron] disrespect [Frank] like that.”
Showing maturity beyond his 19 years, Ntilikina (averaging 4.4 points, five assists, 2.1 turnovers and 1.6 steals after he had a career-high six steals, including one on James), said, “[James’] comments didn’t affect me. People can think whatever they think, whatever they want. As a team, we’re going to stay focused on what we’re doing. I didn’t even think about it during the game.”
Maybe not, but it didn’t seem that way following a James dunk in the second quarter, after which Ntilikina was trying to take the ball out of bounds with James striking an intimidating pose in the lane instead of going back on defense. The two collided, prompting Ntilikina to give James a couple of shoves before Kanter came running over to get in James’ face, with the two exchanging some heated words prior to be being separated by teammates and officials as a raucous crowd rose to its feet.
Hornacek enjoyed seeing his rookie point guard being unfazed by the moment.
“That’s good, [for] a young kid to stand up to the best player in the league,” he said “I was happy for Frank to… show [LeBron] that, ‘You can say whatever you want, but I’m still going to be here and be here for many years,’ and he had his teammates backing him up. So, that was great.”
And if Kanter (who matched Porzingis’ 20 points on more efficient 9-of-15 shooting, while pulling down a game-high 16 reounds, including seven on the offensive glass) wasn’t already a fan favorite – as a team catalyst in terms of energy and toughness, while averaging 13.6 points and a team-best 10.6 rebounds per game — he should be now, after his postgame comments aimed at LeBron’s well-known self-proclaimed “King” nickname and the water bottle challenge the Cavaliers disrespected the Knicks with during the final moments of a lopsided Cleveland with at the Garden last year, while Kanter was still with Oklahoma City.
“I’ll tell you one thing, this team is really special and you ain’t coming to my house playing that water bottle flip game again,” Kanter said. “I don’t care who you are [or] what you call yourself, King, Queen, Princess, whatever you are, we’re gonna fight and nobody out there’s gonna punk us.”
James dismissed Kanter’s mocking of his moniker with a smile, saying, “That’s corny,” before adding, “I’m the king, my wife is the queen and my daughter’s the princess, so we’ve got all three covered.”
Kanter though, had more to say about the incident on the court between James and Ntilikina.
“You can’t just mess with a rookie like that,” he warned. “If you’re going to mess with [someone], mess with a grown man. I’ll die for my teammates. Whatever happens, I’ll have my teammates’ backs because I see this team, this organization… the fans, the crowd, like my family. So nobody out there is going to mess with us.”
Appreciative of his teammates standing up for him, Ntilikina said, “It shows the chemistry of the team… we’ll fight together… it’s just how we are.”
While the war of words between Kanter and James provided a good subplot for an early-season game, the momentary on-court incident with Kanter, Ntilikina and James caused MSG to buzz for a while and James did his talking on the court as well as through the press, it’ll ultimately be up to Ntilikina — with how he (relative to Smith, Jr. and others) pans out — to finish the story. And that dialogue won’t be finished for several years to come.