Knicks coach David Fizdale put Frank Ntilikina back into the Knicks’ orbit during a timeout with 3:43 left in the third quarter and the Knicks down 16. The first time Ntilikina dribbled the ball downcourt, the Garden erupted in Saturday night cheers.
Ntilikina provided a renewed energy and sparked a rally, but it was too little too late. The Ntilikina-led Knicks played with a crisper, ball-moving offensive flow as he became the floor general for 15 straight minutes to the finish.
In his return, Ntilikina finished 3-of-6 from the field for seven points and three assists and was a team-high plus-7 as the silver lining in a 112-104 Garden loss to the Nets.
“Huge,’’ Fizdale said of Ntilikina’s performance. “I’m very proud of the way that he handled everything. It’s the thread of our team now. I’m starting to see it’s a consistent strain of all our guys. How they respond to not playing. I’m really proud of the way Frank approached it.”
It’s still surprising why their 2017 lottery pick was banished in the first place, as the Knicks fell to 8-19 with their third straight defeat since stunning Milwaukee in overtime one week ago.
A brief “Where’s Frank?” chant gave rise late in the first half when a series of guards not named Ntilikina checked in for the Knicks.
With Fizdale going with a full-blown youth lineup of three rookies and two second-year players, the Knicks cut the lead to 101-94 after a Ntilkina floater with 6:20 left. Then Ntilikina got the Knicks to within 101-96 with a lefty drive with 5:30 left. Finally, Ntilikina buried a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to six with 50 seconds to go.
“Not completely, we had a chance to win at the end and we lost it,’’ Ntilikina said when asked if he feels he redeemed himself. “That’s the negative. But it was really positive what we did out there with the young group. We didn’t let that team kill us. We responded and fought to the end.’’
Startlingly, even with point guard Trey Burke injured, Ntilikina was a DNP for three straight games, then the first half Saturday before Fizdale succumbed.
On Friday, Fizdale indicated Ntilikina would be moving back into the rotation by the weekend. It’s a good time with “French Heritage Night’’ on tap Sunday vs. Kemba Walker’s Hornets.
“I think it was a lot of motivations when you have setbacks in basketball, it gives you more strength and to work harder in practice,’’ Ntilikina said.