A noon start time in between two three-game road trips gave the New York Knicks a look at the brutal reality of an NBA schedule.
Life in the NBA is no joke. Long road trips and back-to-backs are two of the usual pitfalls that teams face over the course of an 82-game season. On Saturday, the New York Knicks faced a different challenge: a noon start time against the upstart Sacramento Kings.
Both head coaches had their opinions on the early start to the game. Knicks head coach David Fizdale looked at it as a learning experience for his young roster.
“This is the league,” Fizdale told reporters in his pregame press conference. “There’s gonna be pockets of your schedule that’s just gonna be rough and not what you consider normal, especially coming from college. I think it’s great for them to have to go through a tough trip, come right back home, you don’t get to get comfortable, you just keep your bag packed.”
Kings head coach Dave Joerger had a slightly different take on the game. He wanted to clarify that this wasn’t a noon start time.
“This is not an afternoon game,” Joerger told reporters with a laugh. “It’s 9:00 a.m. back home. It’s tough, you don’t know if the ball is gonna come out and be square…Everybody’s gotta come in and bring energy. They’ve been on the west coast too which I think is a little bit equalizing.”
When he was asked if he thought the game could turn ugly for both squads, Joerger jokingly rubbed his eyes and laughed.
As it turns out, Joerger’s assessment was correct. After a strong first quarter from the Knicks, both teams appeared to be playing with a square basketball during the second quarter. Sacramento shot 32 percent from the floor and 28.6 percent from deep in the half. The Knicks shot 38 percent and 23.1 percent respectively.
The Kings took a 48-46 lead into halftime and both teams needed to come out and shake off the cobwebs in the second half. Buddy Hield did just that. He shot 4-for-6 from deep in the third quarter and was instrumental in Sacramento finding their footing.
But Hield played a supporting role while De’Aaron Fox became the leading man. Fox was downright unflappable in the fourth quarter. The second-year point guard shot 5-for-5 from the field and dropped in 12 of his 30 points. He added eight assists, five rebounds, and finished the night a game-high plus-19.
Although both teams were faced with the tough task that comes with an afternoon game, the Kings responded in the second half when the Knickerbockers couldn’t.
“The second and the third we couldn’t get a shot to go down,” Fizdale said. “I really thought we moved the ball a lot better…We just couldn’t hit shots when we needed to hit shots. We missed like six point-blank layups, uncontested, right at the rim.”
The Knicks looked out of sync all night. Despite the fact that the crowd was alive throughout much of the game, this one had an odd feel. With the team turning around and heading straight to the airport from the Garden, this had the strange vibe of a road game.
“The crowd was with us no doubt about it,” Fizdale remarked in his postgame press conference. “But the feeling was like a road game because we’re about to go right back to the airport and take off.”
The Knicks are embarking on a three-game road trip to Minnesota, Indiana and San Antonio, so perhaps the team was already looking ahead. That being said, Fizdale wasn’t passing off the blame, by any means. He made sure to credit the Kings for overcoming their own adversity of playing an early game on the east coast.
Dennis Smith Jr. scored 11 points in the first quarter, but only netted seven the rest of the game due to some poor shooting. Much like his coach, Smith wasn’t blaming the loss on the schedule or the irregular nature of a noon tipoff.
“Our fans were electric as usual. It’s just morning games. We have to do better in these early games,” Smith said in the locker room.
How they plan to do better is unclear. When asked if it’s tougher to prepare mentally or physically for these types of games, Smith couldn’t say.
“Whatever it is, we gotta get over it and battle and we gotta get a win in one of these early games,” a somber Smith told the media.
Although Smith has only been in New York for 15 games, struggling in afternoon games has been a theme for the Knickerbockers all season. The Knicks are 0-6 in afternoon games in 2018-19. No doubt, it’s a quirk in the schedule, but it’s something that great teams will overcome.
Obviously, the Knicks are in a transitional period and no one expects them to be a great team in the blink of an eye. But they clearly still have a long way to go before they arrive.
Fizdale and his squad will have two more afternoon opportunities on March 17 and 24 against the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers respectively. A win against either L.A. outfit would be a small step in the right direction.
The Lakers are throwing in the towel on what’s been a disaster of a season. Meanwhile, the Clippers are still fighting for playoff positioning. New York can play the role of opportunist against the Lakers and spoiler against the Clippers. Either way, they must figure out a way to show up ready to play in afternoon games.
But the bigger and more vital aspect of this is that the Knicks need to learn how to overcome the grind of an 82-game season if they have hopes of becoming a contender in the coming years.
On Sunday, the Knicks will play their second game in as many days, this time taking on the Minnesota Timberwolves. There are no breaks in the league and the young Knickerbockers are learning that the hard way this year.