David Fizdale gave Knicks fans what they wanted. Frank Ntilikina didn’t.
Two nights after Madison Square Garden loudly pleaded with the Knicks coach to insert Ntilikina for Dennis Smith Jr., the Frenchman saw his first significant action of the season — in place of Smith, who was absent due to the death of his stepmother — and was held scoreless in 22 minutes of the Knicks’ 105-98 win over the Bulls Monday night.
Ntilikina shot 0-for-6 from the field, and committed three turnovers — with two assists — but Fizdale claimed he wasn’t bothered by the guard’s offensive output.
“It didn’t matter,” Fizdale said. “His minutes were fantastic. He guarded, he set the tone defensively, he made some nice plays to set some people up, he got us organized. The shots will fall for him, but the thing I’m proud of is how he kept himself ready, like I knew he would.
“Every day he wasn’t playing he was in the gym getting a sweat, just letting me know, ‘Coach, I’m ready when you need me.’ So I was really proud of his effort.”
Ntilikina played three minutes in the Knicks’ season opener, did not play at all against the Nets and played just 18 seconds in Saturday’s loss to the Celtics, leaving fans clamoring for the 21-year-old former lottery pick to replace the struggling Smith, who has averaged one point and one assist.
Entering to a generous ovation from the Garden crowd midway through the first quarter, Ntilikina finished the quarter at minus-10. In the second quarter, the lengthy guard showcased his strong defense by causing an eight-second backcourt violation, but his limited offense was also showcased, resulting in three first-half turnovers.
After point guard Elfrid Payton exited the game with a sore right hamstring, Ntilikina saw extended run down the stretch, opening the fourth with unusual aggressiveness offensively. But even with open looks beyond the arc, and close shots at the rim, Ntilikina remained scoreless, missing all four shot attempts in the fourth.
Ntilikina was kept on the floor for his defense as the Knicks’ closed out their first win of the season on a 15-0 run, but his future use could hinge on the returns of Payton and Smith.
“Frank was playing a good game for us. I don’t know if I would’ve went back for Elfrid or not,” Fizdale said. “Next man up and that’s Frank. He’s done a great job keeping himself prepared and ready for this.”