Heartbreak and New Beginnings at The Garden
Ideally, Saturday night's matchup between the Knicks and Pacers at Madison Square Garden would've been a win, breaking an eight-game losing streak and starting interim coach Mike Miller's tenure with a bang.
Things were certainly trending that way late, as the Knicks held the Pacers scoreless for the last 5:17 of regulation and without a made field goal for the last six minutes. To hear the Garden, one would've thought the Knicks were deep in a season with playoff aspirations (or perhaps even a playoff game itself, though those words seem extremely foreign to even imply about the Knicks anymore).
Unfortunately, the Knicks also couldn't find the mark, scoring only five points of their own in that fateful 5:17, including a backbreaking make-one, miss-one at the free throw line for Julius Randle with 0.1 seconds remaining, watching overtime clank off the rim on the way to a 104-103 loss.
"It's tough, very difficult, but we played hard," Randle said. "We gave it everything we had and came up short."
Instead of an uplifting, tough-fought victory, the Knicks walked away with a crushing loss, pushing their already-anemic record to 4-19 for the season. But to only lose by one to a Pacers team firmly in position to make the playoffs, in the first game for the newly-appointed Miller, with less than a day of preparation under their new coach... it sure felt like a moral victory if there ever was one.
A real victory probably would've helped ease the sting of losing David Fizdale to some of the players, however. Despite catching scorn from fans, media and the Knicks' own front office, Fizdale was well-liked among the players, and the somber tones from the Knicks' players when speaking about him really showed it.
"It's a family thing," Mitchell Robinson said. "He's still going to be a part of us no matter what. He looked after us besides basketball but as people as well. I appreciated that from him."
"It's been tough, you know? Fiz was my guy," said Marcus Morris, who scored a team-high 25 points on 9-17 shooting and a plus-14 plus/minus. "We had a great relationship off the court... But at the end of the day, you know, it's a business. I know Fiz understands that. We talked afterwards, we talked during the season, just if something like that happens, his biggest thing was you still gotta keep going, you still gotta come here and work, don't lose heart, things like that."
But there was no mistaking it -- Miller's debut could be considered a success given his prep time and the embarrassing way the Knicks lost their previous two games.
It was also clear that there were no hard feelings about playing for Miller now instead of Fizdale, which was never more evident than in a nearly minute-long possession at the 3:57 mark where the Knicks got offensive rebound after offensive rebound, desperate for a bucket. Unfortunately, as was the problem for those last few minutes, that bucket never came to help pay off that effort.
Randle was run in more situations from the jump that benefit his ideal play style, though. Miller ran him in lots of pick-and-roll early, and the results were tangible, putting a player who thrives in the post, well, in the post instead of having him create his own shot starting at the 3-point line. The result was a 16-point, 12-rebound effort (even if the 6-18 shooting number leaves a bit to be desired -- but Randle and others were absolutely eaten up by the Pacers' Myles Turner down the stretch, who finished with five blocks).
Even when he wasn't in PnR situations, Randle was used in ways that let him get to the hoop as quickly as possible:
"We put in a couple different things but it's his first day," Randle said of Miller. "Tough to say things have changed but he's great. We're buying into what he's saying and we gave ourselves a chance to win."
Elfrid Payton was a revelation as well, closing the game with both Frank Ntilikina (1-5 from the field) and Dennis Smith Jr. (0-5) struggling. Payton finished with nine points, seven assists and three steals, none bigger than this one late:
"He played really well," Miller said of Payton. "You could see the things that he was doing in terms of directing people and putting people in positions. The pace of getting downhill. I thought some of the defensive plays, like the steal that he had for the layup was a big play at the time. He showed what a heady player he is, and I thought he played really well."
On the topic of players that hail from the Bayou, Robinson put together a stat sheet-stuffing 14-point, seven-rebound, three-block and two-steal effort off the bench. But most importantly, he only committed one foul in 25 minutes -- the only foul he's committed in his last 55 minutes, dating back to last game.
"I took over the energy that my teammates had on the court," Robinson said. "I saw them playing extra hard so I have to match the intensity so we can get stops and have a chance to win the game."
RJ Barrett also came out like a ball of fire to start the game, but eventually cooled off as the game wore on. Still, though, he got the biggest cheer of the first half with this thunderous dunk in transition:
All in all, what the players, their new coach and their fans can all probably agree on is that the effort was there for all 48 minutes in this game, which is something that couldn't have been said of the two games that ultimately got Fizdale fired. The rotations made sense, the schemes on both sides of the ball seemed sound (again, especially so given the short prep time) and the Knicks played a prospective playoff team tight until the final whistle.
On this night, the Knicks just didn't get the one or two bounces they needed to finally break their losing streak.