Frank Ntilikina warned his return “was not going to be perfect.’’ And he was right — from a scoring standpoint.
Ntilikina contributed energetic defense and some playmaking Friday night, but it was hardly enough for the listless Knicks to avoid a 111-93 blowout loss to the Nuggets at the Garden.
Still rusty with his shot after missing nearly two months and 24 straight games with a groin injury, Ntilikina scored just five points in 25 minutes. He also dished out five assists with four rebounds. He was on the court almost exclusively with another point guard, Emmanuel Mudiay or Kadeem Allen, playing mostly off the ball.
The issue with Ntilikina is not being aggressive enough to create for himself and teammates. An illustration came early in the fourth quarter, when he dribbled at the perimeter with space to drive the ball. Instead, he passed quickly into the left corner for a guarded Lance Thomas, who bricked a 3-pointer.
Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic was too much of a load as he tallied 21 points, 17 rebounds and five assists as Denver improved to 49-22. The Knicks, meanwhile, fell to 0-2 on their six-game homestand and their league-worst record dropped to 14-59 overall.
Denver has the second-best record in the Western Conference with Coach of the Year candidate Mike Malone, a native New Yorker and former Knicks assistant, running the show.
Ntilikina, finally overcoming his sore groin that lasted a lot longer than anyone imagined, still didn’t get a chance to play alongside Dennis Smith Jr., whose back injury has been slow to heal. The two 2017 lottery-pick point guards have yet to play together. Smith was obtained from the Mavericks days after Ntilikina went down with his injury in late January.
“Of course playing with Dennis would have been great and amazing,’’ Ntilikina said before the game. “Like he said when I was on the side, he better hurry. I’m excited to play with him.’’
The Knicks have three lottery-pick point guards on the roster, but they wouldn’t hesitate to take point guard Ja Morant of Murray State high up in the draft after he has become an NCAA Tournament sensation.
Smith missed a fifth straight game, and there’s no telling when he’ll return. He’ll undergo further testing next week, with coach David Fizdale saying it will be at least a couple of more games.
Smith has yet to speak to the media since going down, and declined another opportunity to be interviewed Friday night. Fizdale said the Knicks are hardly at the point of shutting down Smith, because it is important for him to play.
Ntilikina, in 14 first-half minutes, didn’t do much scoring, but moved the ball and gave defensive energy. He was a team-high plus-7 in the half.
The Frenchman entered with 5:12 left in the first quarter and missed his first three shots before hitting an open corner 3-pointer off a Mudiay drive-and-kick.
Ntilikina also picked up three assists in the half and should have had four. His alley-oop feed on his second possession to Mitchell Robinson (16 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks) was botched by the rookie center, but Ntilikina hit him in the lane later on for a layup. Ntilikina also had one long outlet feed for Mudiay that led to an easy layup.
With their recent trend of not defending the 3-point line or being strong in transition defense, the Knicks fell behind by 21 points late in the first quarter and gave up 37 points in the period.
It was a terrible first half for the Knicks’ other recent lottery pick, rookie Kevin Knox, who was 1-for-8 with one official turnover — though he lost the ball on multiple occasions. He was a team-worst minus-20.
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