During the New York Knicks’ most exciting and arguably their best win of the season, it had to be hurting point guard Frank Ntilikina that he was relegated to being a healthy spectator for all of it.
The Milwaukee Bucks (15-7), the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, tied for the NBA’s third-best record, seemed to have the Knicks (8-16) put away several times at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.
But New York wouldn’t go away. Down 50-37 in the second quarter, the Knicks took a 71-70 lead in the third period only to see the Bucks score 17 straight points to go up, 87-71.
New York railed again, and closed to within 97-95 in the first minute of the fourth quarter, only to see Milwaukee pull away again and extend its lead to 113-99, with under seven minutes left in regulation. The Knicks appeared done that time, but they kept battling and sent the game to overtime, tied at 124 apiece.
Falling behind one last time, 134-132, New York scored the final four points, with second-year guard Damyean Dotson hitting a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:09 left and Dotson getting some help on Milwaukee’s final possession to stop superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo to seal an improbable win.
It took every bit of the Knicks ending a string of 368 consecutive games without having four 20-point scorers in the same contest — doing so for the first time since a 123-110 home win over Philadelphia on March 10, 2014 — to barely gut out their most impressive and resilient victory in years.
As Ntilikina watched, point guard Emmanuel Mudiay led New York with 28 points, rookie Kevin Knox finally had a much-anticipated breakout game with a career-high 26 points, while shooting guards Tim Hardaway Jr. and Damyean Dotson added 21 points each.
To his credit, Ntilikina has been a great teammate and couldn’t be more supportive and professional given his situation.
Not every 20-year-old playing in a city like New York, as an eighth overall draft pick could handle the pressure and criticism which have come his way as well as he has.
Ntilikina hasn’t sulked nor complained about his demotion to the bench. Even on a night when fellow point guard Trey Burke was lost to a knee sprain after playing only one minute against Milwaukee — the league’s highest-scoring team — head coach David Fizdale chose not to play one of his best defenders and his utilize Ntilikina’s greatest strength.
Instead, Ntilikina was cheering on his teammates throughout the game and proudly walked off the court celebrating with Knox, celebrating Knox’s big night, though Ntilikina had nothing to do with it on the floor.
One would think Ntilikina would feel a lot differently having not being able to participate on a night when the Garden was rocking with a playoff-like atmosphere.
But, not the case for a player who from at least a professional standpoint, is mature beyond his years.
“It’s not a frustration,” Ntilikina said after the game. “I think it’s motivation because as a competitor you want to get back on the court to help your team. My job and mindset is to work even harder and to be able to get on the court with them.”
Translating that correct type of attitude to the floor might be more of a challenge for Ntilikina, who grew up learning fundamentals but not necessarily the aggression he’ll need in the NBA while honing his skills playing European ball in France.
As Ntilikina’s prior starting job was changed into a reserve role and as his minutes have plummeted significantly, Mudiay’s opportunities and positive impact on the Knicks have grown this season. His latest clutch performance in the fourth quarter and in overtime against the Bucks was merely the latest example. His inclination to take the much-needed and sometimes, tough shot from the perimeter, as well as his willingness to attack the paint and the basket are things Ntilikina can take note of in trying to improve his own game.
Knox had received criticism similar to what Ntilikina had heard. Rumblings about lacking aggression and playing too soft were getting louder. But Knox — drafted one spot lower than Ntilikina one year later — quieted those sentiments by showing for the first time, the type of game Knicks fans has clamored for since Knox first demonstrated that ability for the Knicks in the preseason summer league.
Doston, meanwhile, provided another good lesson for Ntilikina simply by staying ready. Although Dotson had been performing pretty well, his numbers (like Ntilikina’s) suddenly decreased until they dropped to nothing at all with four straight DNPs (Did Not Play, in the game box scores) recently.
When Dotson was finally called upon however, Dotson provided his normally solid defense while shooting 6-for-8 (including 3-for-3 from 3-point range), then 6-for-11 in the next game and 7-for-9 (including 5-for-5 from 3-point range) against the Bucks.
Ntilikina’s positive attitude (despite his being relied upon less and less) wasn’t lost on Fizdale, and that could ultimately help him get back into Fizdale’s good graces in terms of being called upon more in the future.
“If you watched our bench tonight, he was the most energetic, the first one up, the first one rooting guys on, the one making sure people knew what they were supposed to do coming out of timeouts,” Fizdale said of Ntilikina. “That’s not easy when you’re getting a DNP (Did Not Play).”
Fizdale continued, “As you can see with these guys, none of them are ever in the dungeon… they know I will come back to him in no time. [Dotson] is a perfect testament of that.”
If and when Ntilikina gets those chances, he should recall the play he’s seen by the teammates he readily supports and note that while finesse is sometimes called for in the NBA, it’s often better left in Europe. The proclivity for driving, drawing and dishing or getting to the hoop of Mudiay, or the predisposition to more often look for and take big perimeter shots — as Dotson has shown and like Knox broke out with against the Bucks — are the types of things Ntilikina will have to add to his game on a far more regular basis to live up to what was expected of him when the Knicks drafted him.
If Ntilikina can learn and develop that, particularly while he never played in New York’s most stirring win since he’s been a Knick, then maybe in the long run, the DNP he had in that game could be his most important lesson yet.