Ntilikina was feeling it in the Knicks’ home closer versus LeBron and the Cavs, but the NBA’s juggernaut stomped a New York comeback into Penn Station, 123–109.
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers (50–31) were welcomed to New York with One Billboard Outside Seventh Avenue.
While James’ impending free agency is a headline (and billboard) grabber, Cleveland was on a mission on Monday night to secure first-round home court advantage in the playoffs beginning in mere days. Despite the Cavaliers’ premeditated victory versus the New York Knicks (28–53), the story coming from Seventh Avenue was not the reign of a King, but the unannounced ascension of The French Prince—Frank Ntilikina.
Ntilikina arguably played the game of his professional career, and it came unceremoniously against the Cavs, who Frank stood up to LeBron in the two team’s last meeting—all the way back in November. The Seldom Belgium scored a career-high 17 points, to go along six rebounds and five assists in the starting shooting guard spot.
The previous meeting of the minds—the one where Frank attempted to shove King James upon inbounding a ball—like Monday’s, ended up in a loss for the ‘Bockers, unfortunately. While the Knicks look drastically different then and now (no Porzingis, diminished if nonexistent role of Jack), the presence of the neophyte Ntilikina feels palpable. Frank has had an up-and-down year, obviously, but his commitment to improve game by game—just look at his aggressiveness in Game 81 versus in the second month of the season!—is extremely entertaining as he bobs his way into the paint, a part of his offensive arsenal we were worried he’d never develop. Ntilikina found success driving to the hoop and finishing with floaters, euro steps, and layups:
French Prince first-quarter highlight reel via MSG Broadcast pic.twitter.com/CNAGUJwRAv
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) April 10, 2018
Strangely, and with little hyperbole, there was a stretch in the first half where Frank’s omnipotence on both ends of the floor made him look like the best player on the court, period! This was obviously short-lived as long as LeBron lives and breathes, but it’s certainly noticeable the sheer number of tipped passes on defense Frank tips, the open men around the perimeter freed when Frank drives, and how easy the game all-of-the-sudden comes to the rookie when his shot is falling from outside, too.
Nevertheless, the disheveled and careless characteristics of New York Knicks basketball peeked their ugly heads out. Trey Burke and Ntilikina are fine shot creators, but the Knicks lacked steady offensive fluidity (mainly caused by the ball-stopping Michael Beasley, who led the team with 20 points). On defense, the Knicks were caught on screens and double teams, which liberated Cavalier shooters (remember, Cleveland plays career 37 percent three-point-shooting Kevin Love at center now) and devastated New York’s mini-runs with open attempts from deep. This was mostly presented by Knicks center Kyle O’Quinn unwilling to play out of the paint and defense Love around the perimeter. So, with the tough matchup at the 5, New York stayed hurting from long-range (by the third quarter, Cleveland had more than doubled the Knicks’ total three-point attempts, which NY only shot 11-for-30 themselves). James iced the game with a triple—the Cavs’ third consecutive deep ball—and 45 three-ball attempts from the 2016 champs.
The Knicks were also damaged on Monday by Cleveland’s bench—a unit mostly comprised of former Knicks José Calderón and J.R. Smith and trade-deadline acquisitions Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson. Shepherded by LeBron in a distributor role, the Cavs second stringers moved in pace and space and could not be caught by New York’s depleted bench, a collection of G League players (Kornet, Hicks) and buoyed by spot minutes from Jarrett Jack at guard. Nevertheless, Monday’s contest was entertaining with a French burlesque show peeping out the two-way potential of Ntilikina, and a LeBron dunk fest on the other end (while the Knicks inch closer to a tie for eighth-worst in the league). Cleveland’s bench scored 52 points on Monday with little resistance from the Knicks bench.
The score was decidedly not close on Monday thanks to some successful late outside shooting from the Cavs, who won 123–109. LeBron, of course, led the way with 26 points and 11 assists while Love feasted on O’Quinn for 28 points. Oh well, Frank balled his Rwandan-Belgian-French tuchus off in the last game at the Garden for 2017–18.
Next: a rematch between the Cavs (who could very well be resting their starters) and Knicks (fighting for lottery position) on Wednesday in Rock City.