Young Knicks Still Learning How to Win… and That’s Okay

In the grand scheme of the New York Knicks’ rebuilding process, a night like Wednesday evening’s 107-101 loss to the visiting Indiana Pacers (5-3) at Madison Square Garden was the ideal outcome.

Given that the Knicks (2-6) will be without their best player — injured star Kristaps Porzingis — for most of the season, while having to answer some key questions about their team over that time, and while they’re pegged to win somewhere around the 27 games they’re currently on pace to win this year, losing close games while their youngest developing players are showing good signs of growth sets New York up well for what they’ll eventually need the most. 

While it was certainly frustrating for the Knicks to lose yet another close game — their fourth that was there for the taking in the final minutes among their six total defeats — that trend is realistically something which should ultimately benefit New York well this year.

Getting blown out and being largely uncompetitive through most of a game (as the Knicks have done only once so far this year, in Miami) won’t help or reveal much for the future. But the Knicks aren’t doing that either.

And while New York is certainly trying to win, doing so too much — to the point of challenging for the final playoff spot in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, and in the process, getting a worse draft pick next June — likely wouldn’t best serve the Knicks’ big-picture plans.

Yes, in this particular season, with one of the NBA’s youngest rosters replete with developing players who each provide their own different skillsets and potentially high upside, losing is okay — as long as the Knicks do so in the way they did against the more experienced Pacers.

Indiana exposed some of New York’s issues by doubling the Knicks in the paint, 64-32, thanks mainly to reserve forward Domantas Sabonis, who scored a game-high 30 points in just over 21 minutes, while making all 12 of his shots from the floor, to go along with nine rebounds, three assists and two blocks before he fouled out in the final quarter.

The Knicks also had their struggles once again in the fourth quarter, when they were outscored, 30-20, and shot just 2-for-7 from 3-point range after going 10-for-18 from behind the arc to build an 81-77 lead after three periods.

Allowing Indiana to score nine straight points, New York fell behind for good, 103-97, after a 3-point dagger from star guard Victor Oladipo (24 points) with 1:23 left. Yet, in a game that featured 11 lead changes and 14 ties, the young Knicks continued to battle.

However, their youth showed even after scoring the next four points (to pull within two) and forcing and an airball on a 3-point attempt from the top of the arc. Failing to secure the rebound on that shot, to possibly set up a chance to win or at least force overtime, the Knicks instead let the Pacers run down the errant 3-point try under New York’s basket and kick to the right corner for another Oladipo trey that pushed Indiana’s lead to 106-101 with 21.6 seconds remaining.

“A lot of our [problem] was inexperience and just understanding how to focus in the moment and slowing the game down, possession by possession, and [trying] not [to] get overwhelmed,” head coach David Fizdale said. “That’s something we’ll get better at… I’ll make sure I help them through that.”

Fizdale also pointed out his team’s struggles to take care of the ball both early and late in the game, when the Knicks committed 11 of their 17 turnovers (six in the opening quarter and five in the last one).

“You can’t bookend your game [that way] in the first [quarter] and the fourth and expect to finish out strong,” Fizdale noted.

New York’s greenness was especially evident with its lack of communication down the stretch.

Fizdale was urging his players to follow his lead during crunch time, but recalled, “I was getting the ‘deer in the headlights’ look at me tonight in the fourth.”

While the point guard initiates the calls on offense, others are supposed to follow that lead.

Fizdale said, “That’s everybody’s job to echo the call throughout the team [on the floor]… for whatever reason, tonight, when the point guard was making the call, the other four guys were very silent. It’s something to learn from, to grow from, learning how to communicate down the stretch when things are tense.”

Veteran forward Lance Thomas (the longest-tenured and second-oldest Knick at age 30), said, “We weren’t organized offensively. We could have done a better job of echoing the calls… it’s a learning curve for a lot of the young guys who aren’t used to being very vocal, especially at the end of game. When the Garden’s getting really loud, guys need to get out of their comfort zone and actually scream sometimes.”

One of those young guys, 22-year-old undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier, agreed with Thomas. “Late in the game, we were unorganized,” he admitted. “That’s something we’ve got to be better at so we can start figuring out how to close out games. It’s frustrating. We’ve had a few opportunities [this season]. We’ve been right there. It just shows that we’ve got to clean things up.”

In the meantime, even throughout the close losses, Fizdale and his coaching staff already like the development of their young players like Trier about one-tenth of the way into the season.

Fizdale believes in Trier’s ability to score, even when Trier’s offensive struggles coincide with the team’s late in the game, as against the Pacers.

“We couldn’t score,” Fizdale said. “We couldn’t get a bucket, but I won’t hesitate to play ‘Zo.”

Indeed, Trier was one of a trio of younger Knicks who aptly complemented 26-year-old shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr.’s game-high 37 points.

Trier, who is averaging 9.3 points per game, on 48.1 percent shooting (including 45.5 percent from 3), had 14 points while making all but one of his seven shots in 23 minutes off the bench.

Additionally, second-year, 24-year-old shooting guard Damyean Dotson (who started at small forward on Wednesday night, and who has scored in double figures in each of his six games this season) added 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting, in 32 minutes (consistent with his season averages of 13.2 points per game in 29.7 minutes), while playing his usual impressively solid defense. 

“Consistency is a good thing for a young guy [like Doston],” Fizdale said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in Dot. He’s a two-way player. He competes on both ends of the floor.”

Starting at power forward, 24-year-old Noah Vonleh (acquired during the offseason), recorded his second double-double and fourth double-digit rebound game of the year with 14 points on 4-of-6 shooting and a game-high-tying 10 boards.

Although second-year, 20-year-old starting point guard Frank Ntilikina was held to just four points on 2-of-8 shooting, last year’s eighth overall pick handed out a game-best seven assists while committing only two turnovers in nearly 33 minutes.

And finally, second-round pick, rookie Mitchell Robinson, a tremendously athletic force anchoring the middle at 7-foot-1, despite not scoring on three shots and grabbing only three rebounds in a little under 18 minutes, got his third start ahead of fellow center Enes Kanter, and contributed a pair of crowd-pleasing blocks which led to a total of five Knicks points at the other end of the floor.

“[Mitchell] had good minutes,” Fizdale said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in Mitchell and I like the way that he’s coming along.”

In fact, Fizdale is happy with the growth thus far of most of the Knicks’ young group.

“We’re really happy with the young guys we have to work with,” he said. “They’re coming along. I think Frank is really making some jumps [forward], Dot is making some huge jumps [forward], Mitchell, all these guys, we’ve been really happy with the way they’re starting to take the teaching and applying it during games.”

The youngsters have been a big aid to Hardaway Jr., who leads New York with 26 points per game.

“It helps me out tremendously,” Hardaway Jr. said. “Those guys worked their tails off in the offseason to get to where they are right now and they’re confident out there.”

In terms of his own growth, Hardaway Jr. has opened up his 3-point game by making a concerted effort to attack the basket and get to the free throw line more often this year.

The sixth-year guard and former Knick first-round pick in his second stint with New York (after being traded to Atlanta) is shooting a career-best 90.9 percent from the foul line while taking 5.5 free throws attempts per game after not taking more than 3.1 per game prior to this season. That has translated to a career-best 41.1 percent clip from behind the arc, nearly five percent better than in any of his other five years.

All of that was on display against Indiana as Hardaway Jr. shot an efficient 10-for-19 while posting career-highs with seven made 3s (on 11 attempts) and 10 made free throws (without a miss).

“Just get easy ones [and not] waste my energy so much trying to score the ball,” Hardaway Jr. said is his focus. “It gets [us] in the bonus a little faster. I’m just trying to do what I can to attack and help my team out.”

So far, Hardaway Jr. sees encouraging signs in the Knicks’ spate of competitive losses to upper echelon teams like Indiana, Boston, Milwaukee, and even in a 28-point defeat to defending two-time champion and current juggernaut Golden State (which blew the Knicks out in the final quarter after trailing at the Garden through three periods).

“A lot of good is going to come out of this. We’re battling with these playoff[-caliber] teams to the end.”

Plus, the Knicks still haven’t been able to add back this year’s promising first-round pick, forward Kevin Knox, to the mix following an earlier ankle sprain. He’ll return for New York’s next game, in Dallas on Friday.

Fizdale said, “They understand we’re knocking on the door of being a good team. Its just a matter of taking care of the details of the game, really understanding that every possession matters.”  

Thus, consistent progress tempered by patience figures to be the appropriate way to measure the Knicks this year.

Yet, the competitor in Hardaway Jr. warns, “You can only go through so many games and say, ‘It’s the youth.’ There has to come a point in time when we’ve got to buckle down and close these games out.”

Understandable from his standpoint.

However, even if the Knicks don’t do that, and keep losing close games against better teams, while maintaining their best-possible lottery position, all while continuing to see sustained, substantial positive growth among the type of quicker and more athletic young players they’ve lacked in recent years, it wouldn’t be so bad.

It would simply be the best of both worlds in the long term for a franchise that seems to finally have an eye on creating a more solid long-term future.


About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons).Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship).He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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