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Spurs 120, Knicks 111 : “Well that was fun, at least“

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This game had it all...except a win.

New York Knicks v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the 2019-20 New York Knicks is the uncertainty around them. What are they? Better than last year’s 17-win team? Pro’ly. A playoff team? Pro’ly not. So what are they? Some of that answer is clearer after a dramatic but doomed 120-111 defeat in San Antonio.

These Knicks are different. Literally: only two players who played in last year’s opening game did tonight, and that was sparingly, with Allonzo Trier and Frank Ntilikina combining for just 10 minutes. Last year, Ntilikina was the only Knick to play over 30 minutes; last night four starters played 33+, including 37 for RJ Barrett. Barrett is different. Different from most 19-year-old rookies and different from most Knicks, and those differences are dramatic and doozies.

The last time the Knicks played in San Antonio, the game was over by halftime. Trier and Kevin Knox were the only current players to see action back then; your DeAndre Jordans, Noah Vonlehs, Henry Ellensons and John Jenkinses are long gone. This time around, the game was competitive more than midway through the fourth quarter, with Julius Randle and Marcus Morris and even Elfrid Payton making their first footprints on our raw boy hearts. 40+ minutes into the game it felt like the Knicks could win. No. That wasn’t even it. It felt like they would. That was different.

It didn’t start different. After Marcus Morris hit a baseline turnaround on New York’s first shot of the season, they missed 10 in a row. By the first quarter midpoint the deficit was double-digits and only Barrett and Morris had scored. But the defense clamped down, and by the time Barrett forced a turnover and found Randle ahead of the field with a brilliant save-pass the Knicks were down just one.

The second quarter didn’t feel different. Dejounte Murray abused Dennis Smith Jr. repeatedly; after blowing by DSJ for an and-one, an 11-2 Spurs run put them up 16. But the Knicks got hot and forced a ton of turnovers, pulling back close, only for San Antonio to push back. Bryn Forbes did a lot of the pushing.

The second half opened with something different: Payton replaced Trier as a starter. It paid off. Randle, who’d missed his first four shots and then couldn’t miss, converted a three-point play. A tought Barrett lay-in on the break brought New York within one.

If you’re too young to have seen Patrick Ewing play, LaMarcus Aldridge turnaround fadeaways and baseline jumpers is a nice homage. Not quite the same, but pretty good. Like Kobe compared to MJ.

Poor Bobby Portis trying to check LMA looked like a lot of bigs back in the day who were overmatched against #33. I’m looking at you, Rony Seikaly!

Morris, who was molten much of the night in the face of tepid booing that leads coastal elites to reduce the entirety of flyover country to hot dish and manners, splashed a pull-up to give the Knicks their first lead since the early moments. Randle, Morris, RJ and Payton were all bringing it. This wasn’t Knicks For Clicks; this was the Knicks clicking. Payton’s fifth steal led to a Barrett breakway; another turnover led to a transition hoop and a seven-point lead.

Frank Ntilikina entered this season with some juice, which was different, in a good way. His performance tonight was not in any way a good way, though it nearly was. He set up Taj Gibson nicely for a driving dunk off a pick-and-roll, but Gibson’s dunk clanged out. Then Ntilikina had a fast break basket robbed by a missed goaltending call against Jakob Poeltl. After that, an absolutely brutal turnover near the end of the third led to a breakway and-one for The Portrait of Rudy Gay.

But Barrett wasn’t going out like that, ending the quarter by going right at plus-defender Derrick White and finishing strong, putting New York back on top.

Frank opened the fourth with another brutal turnover, giving the Spurs another breakway and-one. But then another difference emerged. The last two months last season, Knox played big minutes; only twice did he play as few as the 21 he saw tonight. But in a narrower role, Knox showed more efficiency, including consecutive threes that forced Gregg Popovich to call timeout.

Payton found Wayne Ellington off a baseline screen for a catch-and-shoot three, and it was so different and soooo nice. You know when other teams run that stuff and you’re like “Why don’t the Knicks?” Well now they have a couple guys who sometimes can.

Forbes lost Payton off a pick and Gibson was curiously uninterested in contesting; the three was good and the lead was down to four. Then came the moment that led to the sentence I never, all day, thought I’d be typing at 3:00 a.m.

Elfrid Payton picked up his fifth foul with just over 9:00 left, and the Knicks, up 97-91, faced their moment of truth.

Strange, but true: Payton’s defense and distributing were manna on a night the other point guards combined for 13 minutes of desertification. Given that Ntilikina didn’t get in the game till late in the third, and then only because of Payton’s foul trouble, and that Smith had done nothing to inspire confidence, David Fizdale probably felt he didn’t have many options at that point. Electing to bypass Frank and DSJ to have Barrett play point was...different. Perhaps even unexpected. What followed was not.

Knox can’t guard DeMar DeRozan. The Spurs’ wing couldn’t buy a bucket all night, but at the crux of the biscuit he came to life against the second-year man, hitting consecutive baseline buckets.

After DeRozan’s drives and two hoops in close by Trey Lyles and Aldridge, the Spurs were up and Mitchell Robinson was sorely missed.

Payton checked back in after three minutes of game time elapsed, during which an 8-0 run let the Spurs retake the lead, part of a run that ballooned to 18-0.

During the run, Randle, who was beasting all night, appeared to suffer leg cramps and had to sit.

The Knicks, by then, were basically KO’d, too. The ball movement and shot selection went to hell in crunch time. Maybe they showed more concern with the refs as things fell apart than you’d like — the officials missed some calls while whistling some dubious fouls, but that’s not where or why this one got away from New York.

San Antonio expects to win and functions accordingly. Those qualities are not mutually inclusive. Teams have to learn the first, then practice the second. The Knicks don’t function that way yet; they need to develop their muscle memory till they know what success feels like. But they looked like they expected to win. They felt like they would. That was nice. That was different.

Notes:

  • A 19-year-old making his NBA debut and looking not just like he belongs, but like he’s a difference-maker? Give. Rowan Jr.’s strength and kinesthetic IQ are remarkable for someone so young.

The rook was nice.

How nice was he?

  • Randle put together a lovely little 25-point, 11-rebound, 6-assist, 3-steal effort before the cramps kicked in. LeBron James once suffered cramps in a game in San Antonio. LeBron puts up 25/11/6/3 lines, too. Ergo the Knicks signed a 25-year-old LeBron James to a three-year, $63M deal last summer. Nice!
  • “He also had four turnovers,” the peanut gallery reminds us. With bigs in particular, I like to add assists and steals and then compare that to their giveaways. Randle had more than twice as man assists + steals as he did turnovers. Therefore he still played great. Therefore go choke on a filbert, gallery.
  • Morris couldn’t miss for three quarters, then couldn’t hit a thing in the fourth, other than getting hit with a tech after being called for an offensive foul. I often wish I lived in a state with legal sports gambling. I knew in my marrow Morris was getting a T tonight.
  • For a while it looked like Morris and Randle might break the record for most points scored by a Knick in their debut, set by the ultimately likable Keith Van Horn (29).
  • Popovich and Morris met after the final whistle, with Pop doing almost all of the talking.
  • Payton did a lot of good in 26 minutes: 11 points, 8 assists, 5 steals, no turnovers. I dream of him being a taller, less magical Rajon Rondo. Like Rondo, when Payton shoots it’s like Maleficent cursed the rim. That ball is not. Going. In. Impossible bounces and improbable physics conspire to make sure of it.
  • None of the three presumed competitors for the starting point guard spot — DSJ, Ntilikina and Payton — started. You can question whether putting Barrett in that spot at this stage is a good idea, especially alongside Portis, Randle, Morris and Trier, four guys who look to shoot during their REM sleep. It’s popular to write off Fizdale as a jackass, and if you are down on him you’re not coming outta left field with your criticisms. His sink-or-swim approach with teenage rookies is fair to question, and easy to, especially in these early days. If Barrett or Kevin Knox bust, Fiz will share some of the blame; if they hit, it’s probable the coach(es) after Fizdale will reap the benefits.

For now, I assume Fiz is a rational human being, and that the reason DSJ, Frank and Payton didn’t get the nod is simply because none of them have earned it. I’m okay with that. Fiz says he likes RJ and Trier together, and that “the competition is still on, and I’m still searching for combination that’s gonna fit.” I don’t know about that. I do know the Knicks’ three point-guards wouldn’t start for most NBA teams. None of ‘em. Not off what they’ve shown far in their careers. Yet they’re all still relatively young. Lots of lottery picks take time to put it together. Hopefully one of the three does so sooner than later. Hopefully Barrett’s development doesn’t suffer waiting for that to happen.

  • Portis did not shoot well (4-of-10), but did have 7 rebounds, 5 assists and a couple steals, all against just one turnover. Walt Frazier made a good point: a lot of the Knicks did more than just look to score. Payton, Portis and Randle each had 5+ assists; five Knicks had two or more steals; six had 4+ rebounds.
  • That last stat didn’t help: San Antonio killed New York on the boards (51 to 39).
  • I think the Spurs finishing over the 42 wins Vegas projected is a no-brainer bet. One reason? Dejounte Murray is back.

18, 8 and 6 for the pride of Seattle. That creep can roll.

  • Beyond wins and losses, I most want to see the Knicks begin to establish some kind of identity. Tonight there were signs, on the defensive end, of a scrappy team. Not a lockdown defense, but one that gets deflections and hustles on rotations. Entering the fourth their 16 steals were four more than they had in any game last season and they’d outscored the Spurs 32-11 off turnovers.
  • Well, look who’s stepping all fancy outta the past and into the bright brassy technicolor here-and-now:
  • Not a good sign: the Spurs took 36 free throws to just 18 for the Knicks, and for much of the game that difference was greater than two-to-one.
  • I feel like every time Julius Randle pulls up for three this season, opposing defenses breathe easy. Not to say he shouldn’t shoot them. He’s just such a load in the post and the paint, and he’s got vision down there, too. The man is a bruiser. Literally and figuratively, defenses will breathe easier with him bombing away from distance.
  • From the Everybody Gets One Department, my first 2019-20 overreaction: I’m off the Dennis Smith Jr. Hopeful Express. I was hopeful about him both before the draft and after the trade that brought him to Gotham. His outside shooting has always been the big question mark, and he doesn’t turn 22 for another month; he’s only a year older than Juan Soto, this year’s Fall Classic prodigy. And yet, watching Smith’s jump shot is like watching a hitter in the midst of a long slump. When guys slump, you often see their swing getting longer; there’s more holes in it. Smith’s form looks slow and vulnerable, to my eyes. If Smith’s jumper were a wild animal, you’d shoot it to spare it being gobbled up by a predator. Or Dejounte Murray.
  • No Damyean Dotson. I don’t know why. No Iggy Brazdeikis, either. That makes more sense.
  • How are the Knicks, a multi-billion dollar organization based in a global fashion capital, always busting out these weak-ass alternate uniforms? You’re telling me there isn’t one designer in New York City capable of something better than “How about ALL orange?!” or “Make the orange look kinda red; they’ll look like fake 76ers.” 25 years ago, St. John’s changed their jerseys to incorporate the city skyline. The 2019 Knicks shouldn’t be lagging behind a college team from the ‘90s.
  • Popovich has coached in San Antonio for 24 years. In that time a dozen different coaches led the Knicks.
  • Clyde sounded unusually emphatic critiquing the Spurs for their beef with Morris over agreeing to sign there before changing his mind and coming to New York. “Folly by the Spurs...” said Frazier. “One of the more professional teams in the league, and you go for that? A verbal agreement? Please.” I’m less struck by Clyde’s take than its lack of compromise. I liked it.
  • Walt gonna Clyde.

Quoth Melo’s Bucket Hat Collection: “Well that was fun, at least.” It was. Friday the Knicks travel to Gentrification Land to face the city’s cool but winless second sons. Whatever happens, we know it’ll be different. Around these parts, different is good.