“Frank’s a competitor,” Lee said late Monday night. “In practice, he’s going at everybody.”
Ntilikina insisted afterward that he would’ve pushed any player that was preventing him from inbounding the ball, as James was.
But other Knicks knew that James’ recent comments about the club passing over Dennis Smith Jr. got under Ntilikina’s skin. So, yes, Ntilikina was likely sending a message when he shoved the four-time MVP.
“For somebody to go in the media and say something about him -- or say it wasn’t about him -- I mean, he took it personal. And that’s what all competitors do,” Lee said. “So, he was fired up and ready to play.”
Ntilikina’s decision to push James ignited his teammates -- and the Madison Square Garden crowd -- in what turned out to be a disappointing 104-101 Knicks loss.
The play resulted in a double technical and may have revealed something important about this young Knicks team: They play for each other and aren’t easily intimidated.
“It showed the chemistry of the team, our thinking. We’ll fight together in all our games,” Ntilikina said. “It was good to have them right here and they know I’ll be here for them. That’s just how we are.”
Ntilikina also showed again on Monday why the Knicks aren’t jumping to any LeBron-like conclusions about their decision to draft him over Smith. Ntilikina had six steals against Cleveland -- the largest single-game steals total for a Knicks rookie since 1987 when Mark Jackson had seven.
The Knicks, as James pointed out earlier in the day, have been searching for a point guard and a perimeter defender for some time. While it’s still early, Ntilikina is providing evidence that New York may have found both when they drafted him.
He hounds opposing ball-handlers and is comfortable running the Knicks’ offense. He’s also played well thus far with Kristaps Porzingis.
Entering play on Monday, Ntilikina and Porzingis had the best net efficiency of any two-player combination that had played at least 50 minutes (plus-47). They’d shared the court for just 60 minutes together, so it’s too early to draw any strong conclusions. But the number shows why the Knicks are enthused about their young core.
“We can build something great here and I’m sure we’re going to,” Ntilikina said.
The Knicks failed to be great during important stretches on Monday night. They couldn’t protect a 23-point lead at home against Cleveland -- an unforgivable sin for a quality NBA team. They stumbled in the fourth quarter, letting James and the Cavs score 43 points and steal a game they should have lost. Many Knicks said afterward that there were plenty of valuable lessons to be learned from this game.
One of them, of course, was clear: They have a rookie point guard who isn’t going to back down from anyone.