On Pro Basketball: Knicks Beat (LeBron-Less) Lakers, So Time to Celebrate ‘Like It’s the Super Bowl’
LOS ANGELES — On Thursday morning, in the middle of a six-game road trip that had produced its share of duds, Knicks Coach David Fizdale started practice by gathering his players for an announcement: Kevin Knox, a first-year forward, had been named the N.B.A.’s Eastern Conference rookie of the month for December.
The news was well received by Knox’s teammates. Emmanuel Mudiay and Mario Hezonja rubbed Knox’s head as Frank Ntilikina made a halfhearted attempt to jump on his back. Knox appeared genuinely surprised — and pleased. The award seemed to validate his hard work while offering the Knicks (10-29) a reprieve from a season that was long ago sacrificed to the twin gods of player development and the draft lottery.
Such sacrifices, of course, have become a franchise specialty.
“I still have a lot of work to do,” Knox said.
And so do the Knicks, who arrived to face the Los Angeles Lakers (21-18) at Staples Center on Friday night having lost eight straight.
But then, another flicker of joy: The Knicks left with a 119-112 victory that they described as cathartic, even if the Lakers were without LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo, all sidelined with injuries.
At this point, the Knicks care little for such technicalities. James L. Dolan, the team owner, was in town for the game and visited the locker room afterward to congratulate the team.
“When we win, we celebrate like it’s the Super Bowl,” Fizdale said. “Why not?”
The Knicks were right to savor the win: Who knows when the next one will come? They still need to visit the Portland Trail Blazers and the Golden State Warriors before returning to New York on Friday, and one game will neither change the trajectory of their season nor mask their daily challenges.
But it was important in its own way.
“We’ll try to run with the momentum,” Tim Hardaway Jr. said.
The Knicks have an odd roster made up of veterans on expiring contracts and inexperienced players who are still learning the business of pro basketball. And that mix, which is almost a 50-50 split, has caused some problems, Fizdale said, not among players in the locker room — “They like each other,” he said — but in terms of the team’s on-court chemistry.
Before the Knicks arrived in Los Angeles, the first half of their road trip featured a 16-point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, a 32-point loss to the Utah Jazz and a 7-point loss to the Denver Nuggets.
“We are so young and we have so many guys in contract years fighting for their lives that I’ve got to get this group to move the ball,” Fizdale said. “The numbers say that when we pass the ball, we win. And when we don’t pass, we lose.”
He went on to acknowledge the inevitable “friction” between players who are vying for their next deals (and may feel more urgency to produce) and those who have the luxury of being included in the team’s long-term plan. For the most part, Fizdale has been favoring the young players with promise.
“That’s just part of this league, and that’s the juggling act that I have to handle,” Fizdale said. “Am I always going to be right? No. But will I always be upfront and honest about where we are and what we’re doing? Yes.”
Enes Kanter, one of the aforementioned veterans who will be a free agent this summer, has gone public with his displeasure over his diminished role. Kanter got an opportunity off the bench against the Lakers and delivered, finishing with 16 points and 15 rebounds.
“I don’t want no free money,” Kanter said. “This organization pays me money to go out and play as hard as I can and just fight. So I’m going to give my everything.”
Kanter, though, is not the only one to voice frustration. Hardaway, who figures to be a part of the team’s future, has alluded to the toll of losing, to the thankless process of a perpetual rebuild. He does not subscribe to the idea that the Knicks should be tanking games to increase their odds of getting the top pick in the draft lottery.
“I’m a competitor,” Hardaway said. “None of us got here by losing ballgames for our respective ball clubs when we were in college or in high school. Everybody was winners. Everybody wanted to win. Just to be in this situation is tough, but it builds character.”
One of the bright spots has been the improved play of Knox, who averaged 17.1 points and 6 rebounds while shooting 38.4 percent from 3-point range during December.
Against the Lakers, Knox made back-to-back 3-pointers early in the first quarter, then sliced through the lane for a dunk and a 17-point lead. The game was barely six minutes old. James, in a dark blazer, watched with a dour expression from behind the home bench. (He is expected to miss at least another week because of a groin injury.) The Knicks, after giving up their lead, held on late, thanks to some solid defense.
Knox finished with 14 points in 37 minutes, which is the sort of workload to which he is becoming accustomed.
“We talked about building him into a premier N.B.A. player who can play both ends of the floor,” Fizdale said, “and we’re trying to give him a taste of what that entails. It’s not necessarily the minutes you play, but what you’re doing with those minutes from an effort standpoint, from a competitive standpoint: How many calories are you burning?”
For one night, the burn was worth it. The Knicks can only hope it is a sign of things to come.