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Celtics 104, Knicks 102: “That was fun”

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No, I’m not even kidding, it was.

NBA: New York Knicks at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Look, I know you read the title. I know you’re already like, “That’s bullshit, this is professional sports. There are no moral victories here. We’ve been through all of the before, this is the Knicks. They give us false hope damn near every year and then snatch it away.”

Yes, the Knicks sucking is about as regular as the sun coming up every day. You’d be forgiven if you just looked at the 1-5 record the Knicks now carry and said, “Same old Knicks.”

But I don’t know, man. Maybe I’m just a sucker. But this time around, I’m feeling more hopeful than I have for a team with a 16.7 percent win percentage in a while. Truthfully, I think they’re closer to a .500 team than they are a .167 team (30 wins equals a .366 win percentage, thanks calculator!).

Sooner or later, the last shot by Jayson Tatum isn’t gonna go in, and the Knicks will march into overtime with momentum. Kyrie won’t nail that go-ahead shot over RJ Barrett’s outstretched hand. The Spurs won’t go on an 18-0 run. And the Knicks will actually string together a few wins.

Unfortunately, tonight wasn’t quite that night. But as games go, this one was maybe the most encouraging to date. Against a playoff team, on the road, the Knicks resisted the urge to completely flub the first 8-15 minutes of the game and fall into a big hole, and actually just stayed competitive with Boston (a 4-1 presumed playoff team) for all 48 minutes, until literally the last second, losing 104-102 on the aforementioned Tatum game-winner. I can definitely live with that.

The game started off with a surprising wrinkle... Instead of wanting Marcus Morris off the floor almost immediately for my sharpshooting gangly gazelle Kevin Knox, I actually found Morris’ (and the rest of the Knicks’) game to be quite appealing. He was moving around well, not letting the ball stick, and only taking shots that I’d personally deem to be good ones.

That was his first take, and like, look, I’m not gonna pretend it was the greatest thing of all time (it was a miss, obviously), but Morris has made a habit of pounding the ball into dust in isos, and it was nice to see him playing a Knox-esque role early.

(Speaks a lot about how well Knox has been playing so far this year that someone playing Knox-esque is a pretty solid compliment.)

That sort of play continued through the entire game, with the Knicks attempting noticeably less ugly isos (short of Julius Randle) and turning the ball over only 12 times (I’m not counting Randle’s last-second heave that got picked off) compared to their season average of 18.4 per game (again, Randle was the lone exception here with 5 [6 including the heave] turnovers).

Why was the play so much better? Don’t look now, but I think a certain Frank Ntilikina had more than a little bit to do with that. The French Army Knife even managed to score some points, dropping double digits for what felt like the first time in forever. More importantly, Frank caused lots of trouble on defense and was adamant about getting the Knicks into sets in the halfcourt.

Things were back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, all the way until the last couple minutes. The Celtics took a five-point lead, 99-94, with 1:50 left in the game. All seemed lost. But then Julius got to the line and split the pair of free throws, making it 99-95. OK, but it still seemed like a long shot. Marcus Smart split his own pair of free throws to push it to five again with a minute to go. Yeah, definitely over now.

Not so fast! Morris got fouled on a 3-pointer and made two of three free throws, cutting the deficit to three. The Knicks got a stop and Morris was fouled again, this time canning both from the line. One point game. Kemba gets intentionally fouled a little late on the other end and makes both free throws with 13 seconds left. The Knicks march down the floor, down three and...

Why the Knicks had RJ driving there going for two points is beyond me, but hey, it worked(ish)! Then, of course...

And that was that. But, again, this is a Boston team that, 99 percent, will make the playoffs this year. As will the Nets, likely. And the Spurs, maybe not quite as likely. The Magic and Bulls could definitely be in the convo. And this team has played all of those teams close this year. Let’s try to see the silver linings for now. Meet me back in Panic Town if this team is 3-17 or something.

Notes:

— So just to reiterate, the Knicks would not have been even close in this game without Marcus Morris. Mook continued the recent Knick trend of going wild against his former team, pouring in 29 points on 8-17 shooting (5-8 from three), nine rebounds, three assists and two steals. He was actually great on both sides of the ball. I’ll take Morris spot-ups all day:

Despite his great play today, I still think Morris might work best coming off the bench with Knox starting in his place. That would allow Morris to still do some of his isoing that he loves (and is actually occasionally good at, don’t get me wrong) against the other teams’ bench units, while not gumming things up with Julius Randle when he does. I like both of these guys in a vacuum, but together they tend to kinda suck.

— It’s kinda weird to say given that the Knicks haven’t been good at shooting the ball from deep the last few years, but threes have really been saving their butts and keeping them in games lately. The Knicks are in the top half of the league in 3P% (14th at .352) and they shot 36.8 percent tonight, including so many down the stretch to keep things within reach. Just a nice development that they A) signed guys that can shoot some in the offseason and B) are developing their guys.

Frank Ntilikina absolutely earned the starting job tonight until he proves he doesn’t deserve it. And he needs to be given a decent leash. As usual, he does plenty that doesn’t show up on the scoreboard, but in the case of tonight he even did things that did! Frank had 10 points (including 2-4 from three), three boards, two assists, three steals and a block in nearly 38 minutes (which I was surprised to learn wasn’t a career high for him, thanks Jeff).

As mentioned above, Frank just did stuff. My buddy Spencer (he should be your buddy too, great follow) has been doing divine work on Twitter of highlighting the non-box-score elements of Frank’s game lately that are affecting things for the better for the Knicks:

The respect that Frank has from his teammates too is apparent. I noticed a number of times tonight when noted ball-stoppers Morris and Randle realized their iso was dead or dying and, instead of forcing a bad shot, instead passed out specifically to Frank at the top of the arc to reset the floor and find an alternative. His teammates also have nothing but praise for him:

No disrespect to Elfrid Payton or Dennis Smith Jr., but this is Frank’s job to lose now. Period. The Knicks finally started AND finished a game strong tonight, and having Frank out there was a huge part of that.

Kevin Knox is awesome. There, I said it (again). This was a top-two sequence for me in tonight’s game:

Knox ended up with 12 points on 5-12 shooting, and despite the fact that his 3-point shot has become a true thing of beauty, I’m most impressed by the fact that he’s anticipating better on the defensive end, even if I wouldn’t classify him as a good defender just yet. Playing passing lanes is a really valuable skill, and Knox has shown that ability so far this year. If his offense keeps developing to well above average, just having a couple plus skills on defense should be enough to make him a good player overall.

(Oh but wait, his RPM said he was the worst player to ever live after he was miscast as a first option playing huge minutes in his rookie year. Please disregard all of the above. He’s trash!)

— Free throws are a really big problem for this team right now. The Knicks are second-worst to only the Bucks so far this year, shooting .674 coming into tonight and .667 tonight. The Knicks don’t have a Giannis to make up for that. I have absolutely no numbers to back this up, but trust me, if they could even shoot 75 percent as a team, they’d probably be at least 2-4 right now.

— RJ Barrett was good, if not his best in this one. Kid had 15 points of 5-17 shooting (these night are bound to happen sometimes), but also seven boards, five assists, a steal and a block. The defense was there. The passing was REALLY there:

RJ is also perhaps the most dangerous player the Knicks have had in transition since...? I don’t even know. He just always seems to make the right read on the run.

My only complaint with RJ was that I feel like he was forcing things a bit down the stretch, trying to propel this team to a win. Eventually Morris wound up taking over that duty and almost finishing the task. But I like that from RJ. Later on this season, if wins aren’t a concern, I hope RJ’s trusted to try to close the game any given night. Because ultimately, that’s what we’re gonna want him doing when it’s time to really play for something.

— An interesting new comparison to keep in mind:

Mitchell Robinson only played 16 minutes for two reasons: one, he got two fouls early and had to sit for a bit, and two, he “sprained” (probably dislocated) his finger on a dunk attempt and had to exit the game for a bit. But he came back, and his impact was immediately felt, no less than on that sequence above that led to the Frank transition layup. I like that Mitch fought through the probably considerable pain he was feeling in that digit to still play. This team does nothing if not fight for each other so far this year.

— Fizdale ran an extremely tight eight-man rotation tonight. Arguably too tight for the long NBA season, but honestly just tight enough tonight in a game that the Knicks really, really seemed like they wanted to win. I would’ve maybe appreciated some Taj Gibson minutes instead of Bobby Portis for a bit, because Bobby just couldn’t hit much of anything tonight. And some Dotson minutes to give Morris or Knox a spell would’ve probably been good as well.

As long as it’s not eight guys out there every single night, though, I’m fine with it. And (maybe in spite of himself due to circumstances beyond his control with Elfrid and DSJ) it seems like Fiz might really be onto something with having Frank and RJ both share the backcourt and alternate ball-handling duties.

— Speaking of Portis, this was my main note on him for the night: “Portis been great on second efforts, but would be nice if he hit more first efforts.” I don’t feel the need to say too much more on that front. Other than to just point this out as well:

— I don’t want to shit on Julius Randle too much, because despite the low scoring numbers and high turnovers, I actually did like some of what he did tonight. My big gripe with him right now is I think he lets things affect him too much sometimes.

For example, in the first half, he had what he thought should have been called a foul by Semi Ojeleye on one of his drives. He got up and argued and got a tech. Great. But then, on the very next possession, Randle fell asleep at the wheel and dragged his foot on a basic pass at the top of the arc, resulting in one of his numerous turnovers. Those sort of brain farts add up for a team that’s desperately trying to scrape out wins. If Randle’s gonna be the leader on the court that he was brought here to be, he’s gotta tighten this stuff up.

— I’d just like to come out in support of Ed Cohen as a suitable replacement for when Mike Breen is off. And it has nothing to do with the fact that he was nice enough to come on Locked On Knicks this offseason. He just actually does a really good job, and comes way closer to replicating Breen’s chemistry with Clyde than Kenny Albert does.


And 2000 words later (when the actual fuck did that happen), I’m done. So said mama said Knox you out, “That was fun.” Don’t let em tell you otherwise. This team’s time is coming. A 5-1 stretch at some point will make you forget all about this 1-5 start.