Knicks PG Frank Ntilikina saw his first clutch performance with the team, and he delivered in the 108-101 win over the Pacers.
It has been a slow start to Ntilikina's NBA career, but he was on the floor in crunch time Sunday night as the Knicks were battling back from a 19-point deficit. He had already dished a few assists to Kristaps Porzingis to cut the lead, but Porzingis returned the favor with a pass to Ntilikina with a 99-99 ballgame and 1:34 on the clock.
Ntilikina stepped into the shot and knocked it down with a thunderous roar from Madison Square Garden to follow. The bucket gave Ntilikina a season high 10 points to go along with seven assists in 24 minutes.
But it was his defense that prompted head coach Jeff Hornacek to keep the 19-year-old on the floor. It turned out to be a good move as he disrupted the Pacers throughout the second half, and would force a loose ball that turned into a transition point right after making his clutch three.
"Defensively, it's incredible [what he can do]," SG Tim Hardaway Jr. told The Post's Alex Squadron. "He picks a guy up full-court. He's so long and athletic. And he's got great hands. He just irritates that ball handler."
Defense hasn't been the problem for Ntilikina early on, but his offense and lack of confidence as been an area of concern. After last night, that concern may have diminished quite a bit.
"He shot it with [the mentality], 'OK, I'm going to make this one,'" Hornacek said. "There was no doubt. That's great to see in a 19-year-old.
"He's finding his way out there. It says a lot about him and how he plays with confidence. He's not afraid of the moment."
Ntilikina admits his confidence was key to hitting that late three, and it is something he will look to emulate every night.
"I had that confidence," he said. "But being comfortable on the court took time. I think tonight was a good step and what I look to do in the future."
The future is what fans are hoping will be bright for this young Knicks team. But after winning five of their last six games, it is apparent this Knicks team can win now. That is exactly what the first-rounder wants.
"We dont' want to be good in the future," Ntilikina said. "We want to be good right now. We want to grow up right now."
Ntilikina has notched 4.7 points, four assists, and 1.9 steals in 18.6 minutes per game this season.
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The issue with Ntilikina has been confidence. You can tell when he shoots sometimes that he is hesitant, even at the free throw line. He missed two free throws pretty badly early in the game and airballed a shot. He's had several shots this year that weren't close to going in, but last night should be a huge confidence boost for him. He nailed two three-pointers in the fourth quarter with the second one turning out to essentially be the game-winner. If that doesn't help, I don't know what will.
Ntilikina also hasn't attacked the rim like the Knicks hoped he would. Last night, he had a nice move to get to the basket and finish, and we need to see some more of that. As I've said over and over, it's going to take this kid time to adjust to the NBA game. The goal is that every night his confidence level gets higher and higher to the point where he's not afraid to shoot the ball, and try and draw fouls when he uses his wingspan to get to the hoop. His offensive game is still a mystery, but him knocking down shots here and there is going to be needed from the point guard position.
We already know about his defense, and his ability to use that seven-foot wingspan to force steals and make it difficult to get the ball past him. He's shown that thus far, and could become even more aggressive at some points. Refs call the game tight now, so he isn't going to always get away with reaching in on guys, but there's times where he should take risks and hope that it leads to turnovers and easy buckets.
After last night, Ntilikina is becoming even more of a fan favorite, and The Garden rocks when he makes big shots. Expect to see much more of that as the season goes.