Frank Ntilikina, all 190 pounds of him, went to grab the basketball to inbounds late in the first quarter Monday. A 6-foot-8, 250-pound human piece of chiseled granite known as LeBron James stood in his way.
So Ntilikina shoved James. Twice. Sort of had the same effect as a seagull’s wing brushing the Rock of Gibraltar.
“I’ll make sure tomorrow I will eat more,” Ntilikina said.
James took slight offense, nothing major but given the remarks of recent days — specifically, LeBron taking a shot at Phil Jackson and by association verbally slapping Ntilikina — teammates rushed to Ntilikina’s defense. Madison Square Garden likely found a new folk hero in the 19-year-old Frenchman.
“He was in my way to get the ball, to get the ball out of bounds. It could have been anyone so I just pushed him to get the ball in. He was in my way,” said Ntilikina, who had five of his six steals in the first half and had seven points in 24 minutes.
So on a night the Knicks blew a 23-point lead and ended up losing 104-101 because the Cavs went on a 3-point, James pass-inspired frenzy in the fourth quarter, much of the postgame chatter on the losing side concerned Ntilikina.
“Frank’s a competitor. In practice he’s going at everybody. We compete. 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,” Courtney Lee said. “So he was fired up and ready to play.”
And ready to take on the best player on the planet.
If you follow the Knicks and don’t live in Antarctica, you heard about James’ less than flattering assessment of the Knicks’ draft pick last June. He claimed on Saturday the Mavericks’ Dennis Smith Jr., a longtime James associate, should be a Knick. James swore Monday morning it was not meant as a dig at Ntilikina.
But it was like saying, “Hey, the food in this restaurant stinks. I’m not criticizing the chef. I’m ripping the architect and I should have eaten across the street.”
Ntilikina said it didn’t bother him. Not Saturday when he heard it. Not Sunday when he was asked about it. Not Monday when he did the unthinkable and challenged the King.
And lived to talk about it.
“The comments like I said yesterday did not affect me,” Ntilikina said. “People can take whatever they take, whatever they want. As a team we’re going to stay focused in what we’re doing. I didn’t even think about it.”
The raucous Garden crowd did. So did the Knicks, especially Kanter who tweeted support Saturday night then verbalized support — to the dismay of James — on Sunday.
“We talked about it before the game. I didn’t want it to affect his game. He handled it well,” Enes Kanter said of Ntilikina before explaining why he was so quick to jump into the fire.
“I don’t care who you are. What do you call yourself, King, Queen, Princess, whatever you are. You know what? We’re going to fight. Nobody out there is going to punk us,” Kanter said. “He’s a rookie. You call yourself King or whatever. But you can’t just mess with a rookie like that. If you’re going to mess with [someone] go mess with the grown men. … I’ll die for my teammates.”
Maybe a little dramatic, but you get the idea.
James said the whole incident was “nothing, we got the win.” And of Kanter, he said, “I’m not even going to say that guy’s name again.”
And he probably won’t even want to try to spell Ntilikina who was at the center of a tiff that may have provided the biggest positive for Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek.
“That’s good. A young kid to stand up to the best player in the league,” Hornacek said. “I was happy for Frank to get an opportunity to get out there and play and show him, yeah, you can say whatever you want but I’m going to still be here and be here for many years. Then you had his teammates backing him up. That was great.”