Ian Begley, SNY.tv | Twitter |
A couple weeks ago, Frank Ntilikina walked into David Fizdale's office, unannounced, and delivered a message:
"He just said, 'Coach, I've been through a lot in my two years. I feel like I finally understand what the NBA is about. I know I haven't shown it yet, but I'm a dog, too,'" Fizdale said. "It was so cool to hear him say that. And (Thursday against Dallas) he showed that he is really a junkyard dog when it comes to competition."
The 21-year-old had several hustle plays on defense in the win and bothered Luka Doncic enough to help limit him to two points in the fourth quarter. Doncic had 33 for the game. The Knicks outscored the Mavs by four in Ntilikina's 18 foul-plagued minutes.
"Oh man he was a bulldog tonight," Fizdale said after the win. "He was a bulldog."
Ntilikina has since started seven straight games for New York. The results haven't been great every night, but Ntilikina showed again how he can impact the game without scoring in Thursday's win over Dallas. Whether he's given the Knicks enough, consistently, on offense to prove that he's a starting-caliber guard is up for debate.
But the 21-year-old seems to be trending in the right direction, in part, because of his approach to the game. In the past two seasons, there were times when Ntilikina, admittedly, wasn't as confident as he wanted to be. He worked on his mental approach in the offseason (more on that here); it seems like the fruits of that labor display.
"I think the work I put in all summer and even last season while I was injured, allows me to be more comfortable and everything else in life be more comfortable here in this country, this situation as an NBA player. And everything is set now," said Ntilikina, who knocked down two impactful free throws late in the fourth quarter against Dallas. "So my mind is all the way into basketball and do what it takes to get to the next level. So I think that was the mindset -- just get to the next level. And how could I get to the next level? By being a dog, by asking questions, knowing where can I get better, how can I be a better player, how can I bring a lot to a lot to the team."
We still don't know where Ntilikina fits with the Knicks. Elfrid Payton was starting at point guard before injuring his hamstring. It's unclear if he'll start once he's healthy enough to play.
But it seems, at the very least, that Ntilikina has shown enough to solidify a spot in Fizdale's rotation going forward. Here's Ntilikina on the thought process Thursday in a game where his shot wasn't falling:
"I was thinking, how can I bring something to my team on the other hand," said the guard, who went 1-4 from the field and had five points. "So just going and bringing energy and set the tone. And (I can't understand). And followed it. So it was a great night for us."
Not to rain on the Ntilikina parade, but: even with the incremental progress he's shown lately, I still wouldn't rule out the idea that Knicks fans are at the Garden for the Frank Ntilikina revenge game someday, as they were on Thursday for Kristaps Porzingis.
New York was talking to several teams last June about potential trades involving the 2017 No. 8 overall pick.
But maybe the Knicks' thinking on Ntilikina has shifted since then.
It's also only fair to note that these last seven games have been one of the longest stretches of consistent minutes for Ntilikina. It's clear that he's benefited from playing consistent minutes. And he feels that he's shown Fizdale that he has that 'dog' mentality that he referenced in his meeting with the coach.
"Yeah I think I took a step up in that case," Ntilikina said. "You know me, it's not the end of anything I'm just trying to get to the next level again and again. I'm going to build on that and go back to the gym and get better for me and for the team because we have something to do.
"I think I can really give a lot of energy on this court, show a lot of things. Just got to unlock something. But that will come with work, with practice, with not (being as hesitant) doing anything and going and being willing to take the next step."
In defense of Fizdale: Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle had a strong defense of Fizdale, whose job security is an issue after the Knicks' impromptu Sunday night press conference and an ESPN report that president Steve Mills was laying the groundwork to fire the coach.
Here's what Carlisle said when asked if it's fair to judge a coach with several new players on the roster after 10 games of an 82-game season.
"There's a lot of challenges with NBA coaching. David Fizdale is an excellent coach, OK? He's an excellent coach," Carlisle said. "He's got three or four guys that are out or have been out who are presumed to be key parts of their roster. The thing with Dennis Smith (Jr.) has been difficult for Dennis and it's been difficult for the team. I got a chance to talk to him for a little bit in Dallas. He's a tremendous young talent, he's a great kid. (Elfrid) Payton is another one who was a real difference-maker last year for New Orleans and then (Mitchell) Robinson was out the last few games, they've had a lot of upheaval with injuries. That's all a part of it. But David Fizdale is an excellent head coach."
If the Knicks can remain competitive on most nights and win a few games, it would be awkward if Mills and Scott Perry decide to fire Fizdale. If the Knicks are non-competitive for long stretches in the coming weeks, it would probably be easier for management to justify his dismissal.
Home cooking?: Fizdale hopes that Thursday's win helps the Knicks avoid feeling tight during games at Madison Square Garden and leads more consistent play. The Knicks (3-9) have lost some close games but five of their losses have been by at least 18 points.
"I think (Thursday) is probably a big step forward in us getting over the hump of playing tight in the Garden. I really, really believe that the guys wanted to do so well for our fan base that when they saw it going the other way they just got tight," the coach said. "That's what makes the Garden the Garden. It's the stage. I'm hoping that tonight was a big step forward in them being able to start making this homecourt, being able to relax and play through all of it."
Marcus Morris was asked if he'd noticed any Knicks getting tight at MSG.
"Definitely. These guys are young. We're talking about 19, 20, 21. It's just a different atmosphere," he said. "I feel like the Knick fans deserve to win. So we all put a little pressure on ourselves to try to turn this thing around. We're trying hard man. We took upon ourselves and said losses we had the other night are unacceptable. And we're going in the right direction, our coach is pushing us in the right direction."
Morris' first Knick moment: Here's what Fizdale was thinking on the play the led to Morris' step-back three to, essentially, win the game Thursday.
"Mook had it going, so it got in the right guys hands. I didn't even want to risk running anything other than, let's make sure we get a great shot," he said. "Let him decide who was going to make that shot. Luckily for us he made it."
The reaction from the crowd -- which was almost as loud as when they were booing Porzingis -- resonated with Morris.
"Somebody called me and said that's my Knick moment," he said. "So I hope it's not the last one and I'm just trying to keep pushing. We have guys like Dennis Smith back. So it feels good."